Walking the Road to American Mass Imprisonment

Creative commons, bruce berrien

Let me describe a photo from my childhood. I am 12 years-old, a student at South Wellington Intermediate in Newtown. I look out from under a Chicago Bulls cap pulled low to the eyes, and wear a matching Chicago Bulls t-shirt, sleeves falling loosely below the elbows. One hand is in the pocket of big jeans that sag a little at the back. I had never been to America. Don’t think I had ever met an American face-to-face. Yet I draped American symbols across my young body. We all wore NBA Starter Caps and jeans that sagged a little. Around the time the photo was taken, a survey of New Zealand school students found the most popular celebrity was not a local but the Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan.

At 24, I travelled to the United States to study on exchange at the University of California Berkeley. There was no culture shock. The clothes and the music, the accent and the slang words were already familiar. I understood obscure references to old TV shows because I watched the same ones growing-up. I took a sociology course on racial inequality and read about mass imprisonment for the first time – and was struck by the parallels to New Zealand. I found African-Americans were 13 percent of the general population but 40 percent of all prisoners, similar proportions to Māori. I learned there was a likeness in the timing of prison growth, with prison numbers in both countries relatively stable in the decades after World War II, before exploding in the wake of neoliberal restructuring, largely in the communities worst impacted by welfare cutbacks and declining working-class employment.

I have been studying prisons in New Zealand and America ever since. Continue reading Walking the Road to American Mass Imprisonment

Tough on Crime or Smart on Crime – The End of An Era?

Kim Workman

Talking about law and order is something of a hazardous occupation, especially within a year either side of a general election.  The gloves come off.

Earlier this week, the following blog was posted on David Farrer’s Kiwiblog site:

“Kim Workman has six children from two marriages. Doubtless he has many grandchildren.

I want the photographs of Kim Workman’s grandchildren supplied to every paroled violent offender, along with their names, home addresses and where they go to school.

It is just and fair for the Workman family to share in the fruits of Kim’s lifework along with the rest of NZ society”. Oob, Kiwiblog 11 June 2018

I responded just as viciously:

“For the record, ten grandchildren, and three great grandchildren” Kim Workman, Kiwiblog 11 June 2018

Back came a response:

“Kim: but you haven’t given their names and addresses…or even your own, so those “good people” you say the prisons are full of can come calling when they get out…” David Garrett

The last comment came as something of a surprise.  David Garrett is the legal adviser to the Sensible Sentencing Trust.  That he would promote the violation of my mokopuna seemed out of sync with Sensible Sentencing’s concern to reduce victimisation.

In a typical law and order debate, political parties increasingly promote policies which appeal to our ‘gut instincts’ i.e. they feel and sound right, but may not be supported by evidence.   Since 1987 New Zealand general elections have relied increasingly on law and order policies which attract that kind of reasoning.  Here, I want to discuss some of the key messages that political parties have promoted at elections over the last thirty years, whether those political messages are evidence-based, and whether they will reduce crime. Finally, I want to consider what happens when a political party proposes a new way of doing things, and its likelihood of success.

You can read the full 20 page piece by Kim Workman here. This paper was first presented at the Wellington Combined Probus Club, Miramar, Wellington, 14 June 2018. Kim Workman is an Adjunct Research Associate at the Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington.

Legalising cannabis

Creative Commons, Jurassic Blueberries

I started 2018 with an unmistakable sense of optimism – after years of procrastinating and avoiding the evidence, the Government was going to hold a referendum on legalising cannabis by 2020. Could this be the beginning of an exciting new era of drug policy and drug law reform? Where policy was evidence based, where the harms from drug use could be effectively addressed, and where the damage from criminalisation could be stopped?

Imagine my despondency at Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s announcement that she will not yet commit to legalising cannabis, even if the public vote for it in the referendum. I feel cheated. I am also concerned that the referendum is going to be brought forward to next year, to avoid it affecting the election campaign in 2020, with no hint of the necessary public information campaign to properly support the referendum.

My biggest fear is that the whole thing will end up being a rushed, misinformed, ill-thought-through debacle, and we will have missed a really important chance to make a difference; to respond to drug use and drug users differently and more effectively; to stop the harms related to underground markets and criminalisation.  Prohibition of drugs has not stopped people using or having problems with them.

Here’s what I hope, though. Continue reading Legalising cannabis

Three Strikes – Prison Policy by Baseball Slogan

Liam Martin

Labour are currently considering a repeal of three strikes laws. Garth McVicar and National are up in arms. No surprises there, they have been trading on misinformed slogans like three strikes for years. This particular slogan was imported, a symbol of our mindless mimicking of American prison policy. The importers did not even think about it long enough to change the name – a baseball metaphor that doesn’t make sense in New Zealand.

Three strikes replaces thoughtful decision-making with blind punitiveness. When a person is convicted of a third ‘strikeable’ offence, the sentencing judge is forced to impose the maximum prison term no matter the circumstances. Without three strikes, they could still hand down the same sentence, but would only do so if careful review of evidence showed it warranted. Three strikes simply forces the maximum regardless of what makes sense in a particular case.

The first New Zealander to be convicted of a third strike was Raven Campbell. He got a seven-year sentence for pinching the bottom of a female guard at Waikeria, where he was already imprisoned. I do not want to excuse his actions. Too many women know what it is like to experience this kind of sexual harassment and assault. Yet any rational review of the case would show the sentence to be a travesty. The judge explicitly said it was unreasonable, but was forced to impose it anyway. Informed decision-making was trumped by the blind logic of a baseball slogan. Continue reading Three Strikes – Prison Policy by Baseball Slogan

Prohibition and Blame

By Koń, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

New Zealand was poised for drug reform in 2007, but reform never came. Why do we still adhere to drug prohibition, which will be remembered as one of the most arbitrary, barbaric and brutal systems of oppression in human history?

‘Drug’ Prohibition is an archaic system of control conceived in the 1950s that’s had a devastating global impact upon individuals, families, communities and countries.

Back in the 1950s offensive ideas and practices towards indigenous people, people of colour, women, homosexuals, people with mental illness or learning disabilities were sadly not uncommon. Indeed, abuse was legitimised and normalised at a structural, cultural and interpersonal level. Now almost 70 years later, such bigotry has successfully been exposed and challenged, and such attitudes are for the most part no longer socially acceptable or state approved.

By contrast, the oppressive attitudes in the 1950s directed towards people who used ‘drugs’ became enshrined in the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and little has changed since. We have been duped into using state approved drugs (alcohol, caffeine, tobacco and sugar) within our daily routines and rituals and to embrace them as ‘non-drugs’. These hidden drugs have monopolised and saturated the market, while all substances banned by the government (that we are encouraged to call ‘drugs’) are demonised, presented as unquestionably dangerous.

This sharp distinction between state-approved and state-banned drugs has no scientific or pharmacological foundation to support it. Continue reading Prohibition and Blame

Social Investment and Māori in Youth Court

Sarah Monod de Froideville

Why are young Māori over-represented in New Zealand’s youth justice system? Maybe we could start by asking them. 

The first Youth Justice Indicators Summary Report, recently released by the Ministry of Justice, shows that young Māori (and Pasifika) increasingly make up the greatest proportion of young people who appear in Youth Court.

We’ve known for a while that young Māori are over-represented in New Zealand’s youth justice system. What we don’t know is why.

Some say young Māori offend more as they are suffering trauma from the intergenerational effects of colonisation. Others say parental incarceration is to blame, as it robs Māori children of their family stability and prison becomes understood as somewhere that Māori go to for a time.

There are also those who argue that the problem is not with Māori but with the criminal justice system. That the over-representation of Māori in our youth system and in our adult jails is a result of institutional bias, i.e. racist cops, prejudiced judges and practices that have a bigger impact on Māori when compared with non-Māori.

We know that there is more than a grain of truth to each of these theories, but we don’t yet have enough research to confirm or refute their claims. So, they are routinely dismissed as radical ideas thrown around by disgruntled Māori and floaty academic types.

But what we also know is that if the coalition government holds onto Bill English’s social investment vision the youth court trends are only going to get worse. Continue reading Social Investment and Māori in Youth Court

Could ‘legalising’ drugs benefit the privileged and penalise the poor?

It is widely accepted among most drug policy experts that drug prohibition has caused more damage than the actual drugs the government is supposedly protecting us from.

Reform is long overdue. However, we need to think critically and carefully before lurching towards an alternative model.

After decades of frustration from the arbitrary criminalisation of some drugs, while other more dangerous legal substances (alcohol, pharmaceuticals, caffeine and tobacco) have gone under the drug radar, reform is imminent and overdue. ‘Drug Regulation’ is the popular rally call, but what does it mean?

Continue reading Could ‘legalising’ drugs benefit the privileged and penalise the poor?

Solving the Synthetic Cannabis Epidemic

Last week, the NZ Parliament debated an amendment to the 2013 Psychoactive Substances Act which would increase penalties for supplying new psychoactive substances such as synthetic cannabis from two years’ prison time to eight.

The amendment comes in the wake of the Vice documentary Syn City about those struggling with addictions to synthetic cannabis. In an interview to promote the documentary, the journalist behind it called the government’s inaction over synthetics “staggering”. And the government’s response? The tired, drum-banging rhetoric of ‘getting tough’, with its empty promise that this will actually tackle the problems related to synthetic cannabis, or any other drug.

Evidence shows, again and again, that law and order approaches to health issues are ineffective. This is abundantly clear given that the 2014 amendment to the 2013 Psychoactive Substances Act – another knee-jerk response – effectively created the unregulated, underground market for synthetics that is today causing users, their families and communities such heartache and grief. Continue reading Solving the Synthetic Cannabis Epidemic

Countdown to the Mega-Prison

Minister of Corrections, Kelvin Davis

It is a strange moment in New Zealand politics: a Labour government committed to slashing prison numbers, about to build the biggest prison the country has ever seen. A final decision will be made within a month. With each passing day, momentum grows and the build becomes more likely.

The plan is to construct a new facility next to Waikeria prison, creating an enormous prison complex holding up to 3000 people. That is much larger than even the United Kingdom’s largest prison – HMP Berwyn, capacity 2100 – four countries with a combined population of 65 million.

Six months ago, no one would have expected Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis to support the build. In opposition, he was a radical critic and favorite of prison reform advocates, myself included.

Davis in office seems drained of all imagination. Now he oversees 9000 corrections staff and a prison system filled to overflowing. Conditions inside are terrible, with prisoners double-bunked and forced into shipping containers or emergency beds intended for disaster readiness. Routine inspections report endemic levels of violence and assault. Frontline staff are stretched to breaking-point. Continue reading Countdown to the Mega-Prison

A NZ Mega-Prison – Will It Work?

Situation

The Department of Correction propose to build a 3000-bed prison at Waikeria which would initially house 25% of the national prison population, and be almost three times larger than the current largest prison, Rimutaka (1067 prisoners).  It is also larger than similar prisons elsewhere; the Titan prisons proposed in the UK were for 2,500 prisoners, and the largest prison in Western Europe was originally built for 2,600 prisoners, but now holds 3,500.

The Waikeria Prison proposal is considered the fastest and most cost-effective way of housing the growing number of inmates; Corrections can use land it already owns and contends that a mega-prison will provide operational efficiencies.  In its report, Corrections stressed urgency and identified risks to public safety, outbreaks of violence and disorder, and inability to provide rehabilitation programmes, if the proposal did not proceed.  It also emphasised its obligations to operate within the law.

Consultation

Key stakeholders were consulted as part of an environmental impact assessment required by law, and the department separately commissioned an economic benefits report, in order to market the benefits of the 3000-bed prison to the local community. No other public consultation took place and the social impact report did not envisage any negative impact on the community. Continue reading A NZ Mega-Prison – Will It Work?

Downsizing Prisons

Kim Workman has written a discussion paper for the Hon Kelvin Davis, Minister of Corrections.  It addresses the Minister’s intention to reduce the prison population by 30% over the next 15 years.

This paper is intended to feed into future discussion about a downsizing strategy for New Zealand.  It describes and analyses the experience of four states (California, New Jersey, New York and Alaska) that have successfully downsized their prison population by more than 25% over ten years, and also describes the historical experience of downsizing in Canada, Finland and Germany.  It considers:  (a) the current New Zealand situation, (b) the strategies implemented by selected nations and states that have successfully downsized, (c) the outcomes of downsizing; and (d) the evidence-based principles which support a downsizing strategy.

The key findings support the Minister’s intention.

  1. The Reduction of the prison population by 30% over the next 15 years, is readily achievable, and probably  conservative.
  2. Surveys show there is a public  willingness for change.
  3. Confirms that reducing the remand population is an essential and urgent step to reducing reoffending.
  4. There is no evidence that shortening sentences increases reoffending.
  5. There is no evidence one way or the other, that releasing prisoners early is a threat to public safety.
  6. There is no real difference, in terms of reoffending, between prison sentences and community based sentences.
  7. Prison based rehabilitation programmes are ethically wise, but make no  significant impact on reducing the prison population.
  8. If downsizing is the goal, rehabilitation and reintegration resources are better directed toward community-based desistance programmes.
  9. Surveillance on its own is ineffective, and should be accompanied by treatment.

 You can read the full paper here

Stop Prison Building: An Open Letter to the NZ Government

We are criminal justice researchers calling on the government to stop the build of a new prison at Waikeria. The proposal to spend a billion dollars on this venture is at odds with its explicit commitment to reduce prison numbers. To allow time for a national conversation about alternatives, we propose a moratorium on all new prison construction.

Never before have so many New Zealanders been incarcerated. Since 1986, the number of prisoners has swelled from 2,700 to 10,700, a four-fold increase. This puts us out of step with the rest of the world. While our crime rates are broadly similar to other countries in the OECD, our rate of 220 prisoners per 100,000 population is well above the OECD average.

The rapid expansion of our prisons disregards the overwhelming evidence that people sent to prison are more likely to re-offend than people with similar offending given community sentences. Contrary to the official goal of “corrections”, prisons foster criminality and often intensify the problems they are designed to address. Continue reading Stop Prison Building: An Open Letter to the NZ Government

Structural Discrimination

In recent years, politicians and senior public service managers, while openly acknowledging the differential between Māori and non-Maori, have resisted the idea that there is any deliberate ethnic bias, or evidence of personal racism in the system.

…..

There is general agreement that adverse early-life experiences, and social and environmental factors contribute significantly to high Māori, which in turn impact on offending patterns.  However, while there is evidence of structural discrimination within the criminal justice system, and allegations of personal racism, there is a general reluctance to conduct research into these areas.  The absence of research thus enables politicians and senior public servants to deny that such issues exist, in the absence of clear evidence to the contrary.

…..

The idea of systemic bias within the criminal justice system has been resisted by government agencies over recent years.  When the Hon Dr Pita Sharples, Co-Leader of the Māori Party, launched the party’s Justice Policy on 1 October 2011, he spoke about the structural discrimination against Māori within the criminal justice system in general, and the Police in particular.  There was an expected public backlash against the comments and, when invited to comment, Rethinking Crime and Punishment issued a media release citing research  which supported Dr Sharple’s view. Dr Sharples was interviewed on Q and A on the 9 Oct.   On the 14th October, Commissioner Peter Marshall came to the defence of his staff in an interview on Te Karere. He did not agree there was a racial bias in Police dealings with Maori.

The issue was vigorously discussed on talkback radio, and most of the comment supported the Commissioner’s position.  Some commentators reproached Dr Sharples for his claims, and the then Minister of Police, the Hon Judith Collins, publicly chastised him for being ‘out of order’. Continue reading Structural Discrimination

The Impact of Race Relations on Criminal Justice

Kim Workman

As Māori society began to disintegrate, the justice system mopped up those who were deemed a public nuisance.  In the 1930’s Māori “lads” were sent off to borstal “in their own interests” because they were judged to have come from bad surroundings – a practice since taken over by youth justice institutions.[1]  In 1902, Māori constituted 2.8 percent of all prisoners received – by 1934 that number had risen to 8.9 percent.[2]  Prison sucked up all types of offenders from the lower strata of society: the small time repeat offenders, drunks, vagrants, the mentally ill, and so on.

By the 1930’s, while New Zealand had very little crime, it had an average prison population three times greater in proportion to the general population, than that of England and Wales.[3]

Prison provided social benefits: it hid our failures from view; it allowed politicians and the courts to maintain public credibility; it satisfied a public demand for retribution. [4]   New Zealand had become a punitive and mean-spirited society. [5]

The impact of the Māori urban migration of the 1950’s was predictable. [6]  Between 1954 and 1958, reported Māori youth offending rose by 50%.[7]  One of the factors that caused this increase related not to how Māori behaved in this strange and new urban world but   how they were treated by non-Māori.  Māori urban migrants were perceived and treated as a potentially dangerous underclass.  We were outsiders.

The Police, like much of the public service in the 1950’s was unapologetically monocultural.   In 1951, the Police boasted one Māori police officer, Bill Carran, who had joined the police in 1920, and retired in 1958, as an Assistant Commissioner.  Carran, of mixed descent, was referred to disparagingly as ‘the Black Tracker’ by his colleagues, and survived by downplaying his Māori heritage, and emphasising his pākehā side. [8]

When Commissioner JB Young canvassed his staff in 1950 about recruiting Māori , he found them ‘almost unanimously opposed’.  The Senior Sergeant at Taihape commented:

The average European would strongly resent being corrected or reprimanded by a Maori, particularly in some districts where the colour line is still observed.  On the other hand, the average Māori appointee would be inclined to suffer from an inferiority complex when dealing with Europeans, or be imbued with authority and fail to use discretion when dealing with Maoris.” [9] Continue reading The Impact of Race Relations on Criminal Justice