Tougher laws driving up prison population

  • Phil Goff

Tougher sentencing and parole laws enacted by the government in 2002 will see New Zealand's prison population increase by over 20 percent in the next seven years, Justice Minister Phil Goff said today.

The Ministry of Justice's Annual Update of Forecasts of the Prison Population, released today, predicts there will be around 7400 in jail in 2010, an increase of 1300 on the 6100 inmates in 2003.

"The forecast says the predicted increase in the prison population is a reflection of legislative changes and a series of initiatives undertaken by this government," Mr Goff said.

"As intended, the Sentencing Act 2002 has resulted in longer sentences being imposed. At the same time, the Parole Act 2002 is expected to increase the proportion of sentences that inmates actually serve. Under the Bail Act 2000, more high-risk defendants are being denied bail.

"The projected increase in the prison population is not the result of increasing crime. It comes at a time when New Zealand's crime rate, and total recorded crime, has dropped substantially from a peak in 1996. There has also been little change in the average seriousness of offences over that period, according to Ministry of Justice research," Mr Goff said.

"A record number of police, and a of over $1 billion, has resulted in increased crime resolution rates again last year, and more people brought to court and sentenced for their crimes. The Government's Crime Reduction Strategy and Methamphetamine Action Plan have also resulted in more people facing prosecution.

"The public referendum in 1999 showed New Zealanders wanted tougher measures taken against criminals, and the government has acted on that. These figures are the proof.

"The forecast confirms that since the Sentencing Act 2002 came into force, the average sentences have increased across the board. We have also abolished the nonsense of serious violent offenders being automatically released at two thirds of their sentence.

"New Zealand's worst offenders are also now receiving the harshest sentences ever handed down. Already this year two double murderers, Joseph Samoa and William Johansson, have been given life sentences with minimum non-parole periods of 22 years and 23 years; while last year William Bell received 33 years' non-parole for triple murder; and Bruce Howse was given 28 years' non-parole for murdering his two step children.

"Tougher sentencing comes at a high cost. Four new prisons under construction or planned will cost over $600 million in capital expenditure, with operating costs of over $120 million a year.

"It's money ideally we'd much rather spend on areas like health and education. However, in the short term tougher sentencing is necessary to deal with serious recidivist offenders and to keep the community safe.

"Over the longer term, it will be measures to address the causes of crime, rather than simply prisons, which will bring down crime.

"Early intervention, which deals with anti-social behaviour at a young age, is ultimately a more effective and cheaper way of cut crime. Over the next two budgets the Government will be increasing its efforts in this area," Mr Goff said.

Forecasts of the prison population

Prison population set to rise by 1300 inmates

  • The Annual update of forecasts of the prison population1 predicts a rise in the average annual prison population from 6100 for calendar 2003 to 7400 for calendar 2010.2
  • The prison population has already increased by around 600 inmates since November 1999.3 This increase has largely been in the remand population, and takes account of the changes made by the Bail Act 2000.
  • The Annual update notes that: "The main drivers for this predicted increase are related to recent legislative and policy changes."4

Cost implications

  • Imprisonment costs an average of $55,000 per inmate per year.
  • Construction of the four new regional prisons needs to be completed to accommodate the predicted rise in inmate numbers.
  • Total capital costs for the four new prisons are presently expected to exceed $600 million.
  • Operating costs for the four new prisons are expected to be in excess of $120 million per year.

Factors contributing to the increasing prison population

  • Sentences under the Sentencing Act 2002 are longer. The Annual update notes that: "The average aggregate sentence length imposed for violent offences remained reasonably steady at around 2.2 years for the seven years prior to the commencement of the Sentencing Act 2002, but jumped to 2.4 years after the commencement of this Act." The average length of sentences for drug offences jumped from 1.5 years to 1.8 years on commencement of the Act. Sentence lengths for property offences also jumped.5
  • Inmates are expected to be kept in prison for longer under the Parole Act 2002. The Annual update notes that: "The changes made by the Parole Act 2002 are expected to further increase the average amount of sentence served and therefore, increase the size of the prison population."6
  • Under the Bail Act 2000, fewer people charged with offences are being granted bail, and defendants are remanded in custody for longer. The Annual update states that the Bail Act 2000 resulted in "an estimated 1000 more defendants being remanded in custody during their court case in 2003 than in 2000," and "After the Bail Act 2000 came into force, the average custodial remand time was estimated to have increased from 37 days to 46 days."7
  • Prosecutions will increase under initiatives such as the Methamphetamine Action Plan and Crime Reduction Strategy. Areas of increasing prosecutions include burglary "because of a recent focus on burglary as part of the Crime Reduction Strategy, legislative amendments in relation to DNA and redefining burglary in the Crimes Act 1961."8
  • Crime resolution rates are improving. Official Police statistics show that the resolution rate for all recorded crime has increased from 36.8% in 1996 to 43.5% in 2003.9

Factors contributing to improving crime resolution rates

  • A record number of Police. There were 7,472 sworn police officers in New Zealand as at December 2003, and more than 9600 police in all - a record number. That compares to 7,027 sworn officers and a total of 8767 police at the end of 1999.10

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  • A record Police budget. The Police operational budget is currently $1.012 billion. This compares to just $861.7 million for 1999/200011 . Funding has been specifically directed at setting up specialist police teams to target burglary, drug crimes and youth offending, and make better use of DNA laws.12
  • Better legislation and investigative powers. The Criminal Investigations (Bodily Samples) Amendment Act 2003 significantly broadened the ability of police to use DNA to investigate crime and match databank samples against unsolved crime. The Crimes Amendment Act 2003 updated property crimes and investigative powers to take account of modern technology and computer crimes. The Transnational Organised Crime Bill and Counter-Terrorism Bill granted police new investigative powers to deal with gangs and organised crime. The Second-Hand Dealers and Pawnbrokers Bill, currently before Parliament, will make it harder for burglars to sell stolen goods and easier for police to track burglars down when they try to dispose of stolen property.

Factors not contributing to the increasing prison population

  • Crime rate. Despite frequent claims to the contrary, official Police statistics show that both total recorded crime and the crime rate 13 have come down substantially since its peak in 1996.
      Total recorded crime Crime rate
    1966 477,596 1279.7
    2003 442,489 1103.7
    Percentage change -7.35% -13.75%
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  • Seriousness of crime. Despite claims to the contrary, the Ministry of Justice 'seriousness of offending' scale 14 published in the annual Conviction and Sentencing of Offenders report shows that there has been little change in the average seriousness of offences resulting in conviction.
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Impact of legislation passed since 1999

Impact of the Sentencing Act 2002

  • The Sentencing Act 2002 places emphasis on sentences better reflecting the seriousness of crimes. In line with community expectations the Sentencing Act has a number of provisions to ensure tougher penalties for the worst offenders.
  • Sentences near the maximum penalty must generally be imposed for very serious crimes and the maximum penalty must now be imposed in the worst cases. The Act specifies aggravating factors that the court must take into account at sentencing.
  • Murders committed in circumstances with significant aggravating factors - such as lengthy planning, extreme brutality, a home invasion, or more than one murder victim - will now generally receive a sentence of life imprisonment with a minimum term of at least 17 years. That is just the starting point and these terms can and should on occasions be much longer, as they have been in the cases of Joseph Samoa and William Johansson (22 and 23 years minimum terms respectively) for their roles in the robberies in which pizza worker Marcus Doig and bank teller John Vaughan were killed; 25 years for child-killer Bruce Howse; and 30 years for RSA killer William Bell. By comparison, in 1987 the longest non-parole period for murder was just 7 years.
  • These are minimum terms - the Parole Board may keep them in prison indefinitely if the men are still considered to be a risk to society after that period of time.
  • Preventive detention - which is also a life sentence - is now available for a wider range of sexual and violent offending. It no longer requires a previous record of such offending, and is available for those aged 18 and over (instead of 21 and over which applied previously).
  • For all sentences of imprisonment over 2 years judges are able to impose minimum non-parole terms of up to two-thirds of the sentence where the court considers the circumstances of the offence are sufficiently serious that a minimum non-parole period is necessary to punish, deter and denounce the offending.

Impact of the Parole Act 2002

  • Guiding principles now state that safety of the community will be the overriding consideration in all parole decisions.
  • Under previous law, most offenders were eligible for parole after one-third of their sentence. Those classified as serious violent offenders were released only after two-thirds of their sentence, but had to be automatically released at that point regardless of the risk that they posed to the community.
  • Under the Parole Act 2002, there is no longer automatic release at the two-thirds point. Offenders sentenced to more than 2 years imprisonment are eligible to be considered for parole at one-third, or later if a minimum non-parole period has been set, but if the offender is deemed to constitute an undue risk to the community, they must be detained until the very end of their sentence.
  • All inmates sentenced to 12 months or more imprisonment must now be subject to conditions when they are released. These must be for at least 6 months and can extend for up to 6 months beyond the term of the sentence.

Impact of the Bail Act 2000

  • Changes to bail laws through the Bail Act 2000 were designed to improve information available to courts considering bail applications, and to reverse the onus of proof for certain categories of offender making it more difficult for them to be granted bail.
  • Better information means courts can make better decisions about who should be denied bail.
  • Reversing the onus of proof means bail will tend to be denied to those who have a high risk of not complying with bail conditions.
  • An estimated 1,000 more defendants were remanded in custody in 2003 than in 2000.15


  1. Ministry of Justice, December 2003
  2. Annual update page 13
  3. Ministry of Justice
  4. Annual update page 1
  5. Annual update pages 5 and 6
  6. Annual update page 8
  7. Annual update page 10
  8. Annual update page 3
  9. Police Official Crime Statistics to year end 2003
  10. Source: New Zealand Police
  11. Treasury Estimates of Appropriations 2003/04. 2003/04 Police Budget adjusted from Budget-night 2003 estimates of $983.0 million to include additional funding committed in settlement of Police wage claim in June 2003.
  12. $6.6. million over four years committed at Budget 2003 for methamphetamine-lab teams; $17 million over three years committed at Budget 2000 for anti-burglary squads; $9.7 million over three years for youth offending initiatives in Budget 2000 and a further $1 million in Budget 2002; and $7.26 million over fours years for specialist DNA teams at Budget 2003.
  13. Total recorded crime per 10,000 population
  14. The seriousness of offending score for each offence type is the average number of days of imprisonment imposed on every offender convicted of that offence between 1995 and 1999, with the average taken over both imprisoned and non-imprisoned offenders. Relative seriousness of each year's offending is then calculated based on the numbers of each type of offence recorded.
  15. Annual update page 10