Justice Summit: Discussion on improving our criminal justice system

Good morning everyone and thank you all for the warm welcome.

Yesterday was a busy and thought-provoking start to the summit, and I’m grateful that so many people have taken the time to share their views and experiences of our current criminal justice system.

Your voices – both now and in the months and years to come – will be pivotal in this public debate on what is working well and where we can and must do better.

Because we can do better.

As I mentioned yesterday, New Zealand now has one of the highest incarceration rates per capita in the world.

Over the past five years, the prison population has increased by 20 per cent.

This Government inherited a prison system that was under stress and heading even further in the wrong direction. 

Yesterday we listened to the concerns and criticisms you had of the Department of Corrections

And if we are honest about wanting to change the system we need to be open to criticism.

But we also need to acknowledge people when they do a good job.

I want to acknowledge Corrections and their frontline staff who have worked tirelessly to safely and securely manage our growing prison population.

I know you don’t have the option of turning people away and that it is not always easy for staff – so thank you.

I have long argued that there is no good justification for our prison population being as high as it is.

It is why I wanted the job of Corrections Minister.

It was never going to be an easy gig, and nor should it.

It is not good enough for us politicians to simply sit back and claim that the solution to reducing crime and re-offending is to build more prisons to lock people up for longer.

Saying we should be tough on crime might make for a good soundbite, but in the end it doesn’t necessarily make the public any safer.

I fundamentally believe that we can not only halt, but reverse the growing prison population, and that we can do so in a way that keeps the public safe and genuinely changes people’s lives for the better.

That is why the Government has a long-term goal to reduce New Zealand’s prison population by 30 percent over the next 15 years.

It’s no small feat, and it will take all of those 15 years to reach that target.

Now I want to be clear – reducing the prison population does not mean releasing serious offenders to drive down numbers.

It means preventing crime, ensuring that the system treats people fairly, rehabilitating prisoners and transitioning them into the communities.

The Ministry of Justice, NZ Police and Corrections all need to play their part.

When I took up this job I asked Corrections to put on their thinking caps and come up with ways of working more effectively.

It is the first step in Corrections doing their bit to ensure our system is working for and with prisoners rather than just against them.

Corrections formed the High Impact Innovation Programme.

Thanks to the hard work they’ve put in through EM Bail Ready, Remand Triage and Parole Ready, and their continued work to:

  • Remove administrative barriers that prevent the release of those who are eligible for bail;
  • Reduce the likelihood of future offending by giving extra support to defendants on bail;
  • Speeding up court appearances to reduce delays for those remanded in custody;
  • And lastly, working with people in custody to better prepare them for success on parole.

We are already starting to see progress in our prison numbers.

In March this year our prison population peaked at around 10,800 people – as of Monday, 20 August, it is 10,237.

Before now, the prison population had been increasing ahead of forecast for a number of years.

We are now tracking below the forecast for the first time in a long time - by roughly a thousand people.

I have also asked Corrections to look really closely at what I call the transition points in our system.

The best opportunity we have to help people live crime-free, is to give them the support they need both before and as they are released back into their communities. 

A critical part of that is housing, because we know that being homeless increases a person’s likelihood of committing crime.

A lack of safe, appropriate housing has made reintegration difficult. We know a lack of accommodation can be a barrier to people getting parole when they would otherwise be eligible.

That is why Budget 2018 sets aside $57.6 million over the next four years to provide housing and, more importantly, support services in areas like training, employment and health for over 300 people a year.

This is just one part of the work we have underway.

Corrections has developed a refreshed set of top ten priorities, based on evidence and best practice from around the world about what works when it comes to rehabilitation and transitional services.

You will have all received a copy of Corrections’ booklet outlining these priorities – I encourage you all to have a look, and there is also a pull-out section in there where you can fill in your feedback for us.

We’ve got some bins around the walls here where you can put your feedback form, so please do take the time to share your thoughts.

These priorities set out a clear roadmap for how we will provide more suitable alternatives to custody, and better programmes and support that will keep the public safe and improve the lives of people who offend, their whānau, and our wider community.

In 2018 and 19 this will mean:

  • Improved services, including education skills and primary health support, for people on remand.
  • The expansion of our core rehabilitation programmes to reach an extra 490 people per year.
  • More guided release activities, particularly for youth, to help people transition back into the community post-prison.
  • Additional kaupapa Māori support through Whare Oranga Ake and the development of two new rehabilitation centres to support women in the community, as an alternative to prison.
  • An extra 13 recruitment consultants to support people on community-based sentences into work.
  • More housing in the community, including seven places for people on bail, 31 places for people on home detention and 47 places for people on parole.
  • Six iwi navigators to help young people create meaningful connections with their whānau and communities.

That’s just the start.

And while we still have a lot of work to do and a long way to go, under this Government, and with your input, we have a real opportunity to make long-lasting change.

These may sound like small changes, but they are having a big impact. Not just on the numbers inside our prisons – they are also helping people through the system, rehabilitating them, getting them ready to re-join their families, supporting them when they are released – we are giving them the best chance to change their lives for good.

But I want to know what you think.

About our work programme, about our priorities, I want to hear your ideas.