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March 19, 2012 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Doing the Time

The shame of our justice system

When Michael Curran strangled 24 year old Natasha Hayden to death in 2005, it was an act of evil. When Curran murdered Aaliyah Morrissey- his neighbour’s toddler- while out on bail for Hayden’s death, the question became, which was a greater act of evil? Curran’s killing of an innocent child or the fact that the justice system had released a dangerous criminal back in to our midst? 

There are those, like Sensible Sentencing Trust spokesman Garth McVicar, who would lay the blame squarely on a “soft” justice system, bastardised by a left-wing agenda and too focused on humanising criminals while victims are left out in the cold. To the untrained eye, the SST appeals to our sensibilities by taping in to the basest of all senses -justice and retribution. When society encounters senseless brutality, our first instincts are to demand a penalty, not merely as a deterrent to future law-breakers but to appease our inherent need for fairness. This however, may be a short-sighted approach. The SST is a fundamentalist extremist right-wing group whose espousal of excessive penalties and scaremongering are rooted in anger and hatred.

Yet, they aren’t the only voices calling for reprimand over redemption.  A 2008 survey of 500 New Zealanders found that 75% thought sentences were “too soft”, with only 1% contesting that they were too tough. Only 36% had full trust in the justice system, while 40% had a fear of crime affecting their lives. The irony of demanding longer sentences is that it simultaneously contributes to higher rates of incarceration. During the 80s, the ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’ approach to penal justice experienced a surge in popularity.  Where in 1992, the incarceration rate in New Zealand was 119 for every 100,000 people, it’s 203 now, arguably because statistics indicate that the longer a person spends in prison, the more likelihood that they’ll return to prison.

Regardless, Justice Minister Judith Collins believes that tougher sentences deter criminals and help to keep the public safe. Criminals, as the National government sees them, are menaces who forfeit their rights when they break the moral and legal laws governing society. Yet, does committing a crime make someone inherently immoral, and therefore undeserving of our help?

People like Curran may be driven by unfathomable rage, but many prisoners are perfectly capable of remorse and change. If we agree that it’s in society’s best interests to rehabilitate as many wrong-doers as it can, then where do we draw the line of worthiness?

There’s an important distinction in the public consciousness between criminal offending related to drug and alcohol addiction and that relating to incomprehensible psychological factors. The former is believed to be a driving factor for 80% of criminals currently in the nation’s justice system. However, when brought before the courts, only around one in seven offenders will be sentenced to drug and alcohol rehabilitation or counselling as part of their sentence.

While many people would agree that punishment is the cornerstone of the justice system, society is only punishing itself when it elects not to push for the treatment of criminals with substance-abuse problems. Once released, offenders  who either began their criminal careers with addictions or who developed them in jail, are more likely to reoffend, causing more harm to themselves and the community, and burdening an over capacitated justice system. In 2011, it was estimated that 25% of all inmates would return to jail within a year and a half of release, and their continuing drug and alcohol habits were cited as causal features.  This isn’t limited to those with histories of criminal activity and organised crime. One of the most striking issues is that of drink driving- of the staggering 30,000 people convicted of drink-driving offences each year, a mere 5% receive court-mandated treatment. The role that substance abuse plays in driving crime is well documented. So why are perpetrators with this kind of treatable compulsion not targeted when the system is in the best position to make a change?

The answer is disheartening. We have a nationwide lack of rehabilitation and treatment centres in community, which reduces the likelihood that those who receive help in prison will sustain their sobriety when released. Judith Collins herself declared the system as a “moral and fiscal failure”, and despite promises to reduce reoffending, has done little to ensure that necessary steps-such as substance-abuse treatment- are more widely available.

In 2011, The Listener magazine revealed that, of its $1.1 billion budget, the Department of Corrections only spends $3.4 million on drug and alcohol rehabilitation for convicts. Offenders who serve less than two years are unlikely to be offered these services, despite the potentially deadly consequences of their probable reoffending. The mindset seems to be that when ‘ordinary’ people commit crimes, they aren’t ‘bad’ enough to warrant serious interventionary measures. The emphasis is placed on paying their debt to society, rather than improving their education and outlooks, which would see them better positioned to become, and remain, law-abiding citizens when released.

Other countries are attempting an experimental “humane” approach to rehabilitation. Norway’s Bastoy Prison is home- quite literally- to some of the nation’s most heinous felons. Located on an Island 74 kms south of Oslo, Bastoy has no bars or gates and only minimal guards. It employs a penal philosophy characteristic of Norway’s approach to its people, rationalising that a regressive system does not work, and that the key to successful and sincere reintegration for criminals is humane treatment.

Inmates are taught personal responsibility and respect by keeping regular jobs on the complex, such as operating the prison’s ferry, making their own meals, chopping wood, and tending to the animals on the prison’s land. Many of their jobs are environment related. They learn about the agricultural process, and are then put in charge of growing their own organic vegetables.  As rewards and incentives, for good behaviour, Bastoy offers activities like horse-riding and ski-jumping, while also encouraging social interaction through barbeques.

The rest of the world might baulk at the Bastoy’s methods, but it’s heralded as a success within its native Norway. The country now has one of the lowest murder rates in the world, as well as an impressive 70-per-100,000 incarceration ratio, almost two-thirds less than our current ratio. By conventional reasoning, Norway’s methods shouldn’t work. Yet, they do. On a grand scale, Norway’s entire prison system errs on the side of compassion.

As former Minister of Justice and Police Knut Storberget said, “At some point in the future, these men will live in the community. If you want to reduce crime, you have to do something other than putting them in prison and locking the door”.  Norwegian Prison guards are specially trained, do not carry guns, and follow a tradition of mutual respect with their inmates- with whom they eat and play sports with.

Additionally, Norway’s government plans to expand ‘open prisons’. These are facilities where residents are placed during the end of their terms, and where they must find outside employment, pay rent, and do their own laundry. This assists the transition from prison to the outside world and leaves former convicts better equipped to successfully apply the lessons learned in jail to their new lives. Through such facilities, and their pragmatic portrayal in the Norwegian media, public opposition to criminal rehabilitation is low.

Salient spoke to Internationally noted criminologist Dr. John Pratt about the issue. He believes that Bastoy is a testament to what can be achieved with a society like Norway’s. “Norway, although geographically and demographically very similar to New Zealand, has political beliefs and cultural values that are more or less the opposite of what we have here. In Norway there’s always been a long tradition of egalitarianism, tolerance, moderation, and inclusion. When you have values like that, society can accept a prison like Bastoy without any kind of difficulties.”

Norwegian society seems to believe that evil deeds come from social evils, like poverty and marginalisation. Because of this, their justice system seeks not so much punishment for past crimes, but the prevention of future ones, by delivering convicts back in to society in the healthiest state of mind possible. According to Dr. Pratt, our society has a long way to go. “In New Zealand, we have a long history of the importance of the individual rather than community wellbeing, and also a history of divisions and of class antagonisms.” Helping to fuel these social inclinations is the attention given to the biased rhetoric of the SST. Pratt contends that “the SST has captured the attention of the media and quite skilfully manipulated them, and the politicians fell in to step with that.” It appears that our prisons reflect our unsympathetic, and in many ways misguided approach to penal justice.

If we want a safer nation, we have to treat the causes of crime and not the symptoms. If we’re unable to target the socio-economic factors behind most crime committed in New Zealand, then our best hopes lie with criminal rehabilitation, and the open-mindedness and pragmatism that comes with it.


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  1. Phillip Holvast says:

    What a wonderful and insightful article.

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