Thursday, December 06, 2007

A closer look: the criminal justice system

Back in April, the Prime Minister asked former Ombudsman Mel Smith to undertake a comprehensive review of the workings of the criminal justice system. His report [PDF] was tabled in Parliament today. The media coverage has been dominated by his recommendation that a Royal Commission of Inquiry be established to investigate and elucidate the values underlying our justice system (something I wholeheartedly agree with - at the very least, it will have a positive effect on public debate), but he also made a number of other findings. Here's a few which caught my eye:

  • Media coverage of criminal justice issues is grossly distorted, overwhelmingly shallow, and used by some politicians and interest groups to build fear in order to harness political support.
  • There should be a single Minister for the Justice Sector, with responsibility for making sure that the various Departments involved in it - police, justice, courts, corrections, and CYFS - all work together (there would still be subministers, in the same way as there are for the Economic Development megaportfolio).
  • Despite media reports to the contrary, the system generally works well - for example, looking at prisons, we have very few prison escapes, very low rates of assault or suicide, and sharply declining drug use. However, it is a human institution, and thus falliable.
  • We are spending far too much money on the criminal justice system. Much of this is on building new prisons to cope with anticipated demand, but the average cost of keeping an offender in prison is $76,639 /year (this is ironicly much lower than other countries). This is beginning to have a negative effect on other areas of spending, such as schools and health.
  • Our incarceration rate is too high, and is growing due to a risk-averse approach from various agencies aimed at avoiding negative media coverage. We are denying parole too often and holding far too many people on remand, rather than granting them bail, particularly in light of conviction rates. If remand rates were the same as they were a decade ago, we would have 1,000 fewer people in prison.
  • Parole is "an essential aspect of any prison system", and provides both an incentive for good behaviour and a way of assisting prisoners to reintegrate into society. The risk-averse approach undermines this goal, and reduces the chance of rehabilitation.
  • Drug treatment, mental health, and other prison programmes need to be massively expanded if we are to reduce reoffending. 50 - 60% of offenders are under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of offending, while 50% have diagnosable mental disorders. Helping them cope with these problems is both humane and significantly aids rehabilitation.
  • There should be more employment training, employment, and much greater use of release-to-work (under which prisoners get to hold down a regular job during the day, and return to the prison at night). The former alleviate boredom or teach skills; the latter has a real chance of preventing reoffending and reducing crime.
  • Maori and Pacific Peoples are massively overrepresented at all stages of the criminal justice system due to "“the unintended consequences of discretion at various stages in the criminal justice system and unevenness of decision making". maori are five times as likely to be apprehended and prosecuted, seven times more likely to be imprisoned, and eleven times more likely to be remanded in custody. The figures for Pacific Peoples are lower, but still grossly higher than those of Pakeha. Less polite people would call this what it is: pervasive racism.
  • The current emphasis on "victim's rights" (particularly by lobby groups) "risks jeopardising the integrity of the [justice] system at all levels in the process". In other words, we get lynchmobs and revenge, not justice.
  • Surveys on "victimisation" (how many people have been victims of a criminal offence) show that public fear is massively overblown. The chances of being raped, mugged or murdered are low to practically non-existent. Those frequently presented as being most afraid - the elderly and those living in rural areas - are in fact the least likely to suffer from crime. Offending and victimisation is highly concentrated, with 6% of those surveyed reporting more than half the offences.
  • Contrary to public fears, rates of youth offending have been dropping since the 1990's. Very little of it is serious, and most is appropriately dealt with by Police Youth Aid. Only 60 kids are jailed each year, and this has been stable for the past 6 years.
  • CYFS, for all the shit they get, actually seems to be doing a fairly good job at dealing with young offenders and stopping them from becoming adult offenders. Many police, OTOH, regard youth crime in the same light as electoral crime: not "real police work". Police who work with young offenders do a good job, but it is not institutionally valued, and they are frequently reassigned to "more valuable" tasks. Some police regions are working wonders on preventing youth crime, but their strategies have not been studied or taken up by police management, and it does not seem to be an institutional priority. They need to seriously change their attitude.
There's some interesting stuff in there, some of it quite encouraging, some very discouraging. Looking at it, it seems that the "hang 'em high" brigade's cries for bloody vengeance have had an overwhelmingly negative effect on our justice system, and have seriously impeded the development and implementation of policy that actually works. A Royal Commission or similar inquiry would at least allow us to have an evidence-based discussion, rather than one rooted in fear and hate, and focus on the values which ultimately underly the system: justice, fairness, and respect for human rights (as opposed to revenge, cruelty, and inhumanity).