Reality Check Needed for Public Service Reoffending Target

Opinion – Kim Workman

Governments review of the Better Public Service Goals (1) is an opportunity to come up with a reducing reoffending target that is both evidence-based and realistic says Dr Kim Workman, Adjunct Research Associate, with the Institute …Reality Check Needed for Public Service Reoffending Target

“Government’s review of the Better Public Service Goals (1) is an opportunity to come up with a ‘reducing reoffending’ target that is both evidence-based and realistic” says Dr Kim Workman, Adjunct Research Associate, with the Institute of Criminology, Victoria University. “When it announced in 2012 that it would reduce reoffending by 25% over the next five years, myself and others were gobsmacked. No nation worldwide had ever achieved that – the most optimistic and reliable estimate was around 5%. There was no scientific evidence that such a target was achievable, and the decision contributed to the resignation of the Department of Corrections ’s two senior statisticians. It was made worse by the department’s subsequent manipulation of statistics, and counting the reoffending rate after an offender had left prison after only one year, instead of the customary two. (2)

In the 1990’s, and at a time when most other nations had abandoned the idea that prisons could rehabilitate offenders, New Zealand persisted, and its efforts with sex offender treatment and small groups of targeted offenders was recognised internationally. But a comparison of today’s reoffending statistics today with ten years ago, provides a reality check. In 2006/7, 38.7% of all released prisoners were re-imprisoned after two years, and 55.4% were re-convicted.(3) In 2016, 39.6% were re-imprisoned, and 59.0% were reconvicted.(4) The government failed to publicly report the differential impact on Maori offenders; 44.0% were re-imprisoned after two years, and 65% were re-convicted. After ten years of effort, government has failed to make any impact and reoffending has increased.

New Zealand must not abandon its rehabilitative ideal, but rehabilitating prisoners is not something that can be achieved, as Prime Minister Bill English points out, ‘simply by applying more money’. This is where the Justice Sector Social Investment Strategy comes in.

What else can we do? International research provides the answers. Reducing the prison population results in a reduction in re-offending.(5) Shortening sentences reduces reoffending.(6) Redirecting rehabilitation funding from prisons to community based rehabilitation, will produce better outcomes.

But it is more basic than that. Prisoners cannot be rehabilitated in an unsafe and dangerous environment. The latest annual stats show that prison suicides have doubled in number over the previous year. The Ombudsman recently concluded that mentally ill prisoners have been tortured. Fight clubs, standovers, gang recruitment (especially in remand prisons) – the list goes on. When a prisoner leaves a therapeutic programme and walks into that environment, everything they have been taught goes out the window.

What sort of ‘reoffending’ target should the government set? The Corrections Act 2004 requires that one of the purposes of the corrections system is to improve public safety and contribute to the maintenance of a just society by providing for corrections facilities to be operated in accordance with rules set out in this Act and regulations made under this Act that are based, amongst other matters, on the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, {known internationally as the Mandela Rules). Strict compliance to the Rules and basic human rights, could transform the prison into a place where successful rehabilitation can occur. In Germany for example, strict compliance with human rights covenants and legislation is built into its constitution; about 33% of prisoners are reconvicted after three years, (about half of New Zealand’s rate).(7) Norway’s reoffending rate is a low 20%.(8)

When the government sets targets it should do so on the basis of available evidence – complying with the Mandela rules will produce the desired results. It will not only reduce reoffending, but redeem our reputation as a nation that honours the human rights of all. As Nelson Mandela put it, “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

Kim Workman
Kim@kiwa.org.nz

References

1. Bill English: Government planning new public service targets with 2021 deadline, Stuff, 13 March, http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/90385629/bill-english-government-planning-new-public-service-targets-with-2021-deadline

2. Government agencies ‘inventing numbers’ to meet targets, says report, Stuff, 17 February, http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/76957685/Government-agencies-inventing-numbers-to-meet-targets-says-report

3. $40m to stop reoffending ‘a failure’ N Z Herald, Dec 6 2007, http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10480694

4. Salvation Army, ‘Off the Track’, State of the Nation Report, pp 26-27. http://www.salvationarmy.org.nz/research-media/social-policy-and-parliamentary-unit/latest-report/OffTheTrack

5. Kim Workman, Open Letter to Minister of Justice, http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PO1607/S00337/imagine-my-disappointment-kims-workmans-open-letter.htm

6. Sundt, J. et al, Is Downsizing Prisons Dangerous? The Effect of California’s Realignment Act on Public Safety, Criminology & Public Policy _ Volume 15 _ Issue 2 (2016)

7. The Marshall Project, ‘Prison without Punishment’, 25 September 2015, https://www.themarshallproject.org/2015/09/25/prison-without-punishment#.RD2qdphUX

8. Why Norway’s Prison System is so Successful. http://www.businessinsider.com.au/why-norways-prison-system-is-so-successful-2014-12?r=US&IR=T

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