Taking an Issue — Prison Reform in New Zealand

Major Campbell Roberts talks about the experience of the New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga Territory in mounting a campaign to rethink the New Zealand approach to crime and punishment.

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A campaign to rethink crime and punishment

An example of a national campaign advocating for Social Justice was the Rethinking Crime and Punishment programme and report “Beyond the Holding Tank” undertaken by the New Zealand Fiji, Tonga Territory Social Policy and Parliamentary Unit in 2007. The purpose was to engage policy makers and the New Zealand public on a journey towards a more restorative and rehabilitative prison policy.

The public attitude to crime and punishment is often formed by a media’s that sensationalises the most horrific and violent crimes taking place in community. Politicians call for tougher and longer sentences not because of hard factual evidence that this is good penal policy but because they know it ensures votes. In the area of justice and prison policy, often assumption, myth, prejudice and stereotype are strong drivers.

In undertaking this project the Social Policy and Parliamentary unit attempted to cut through the myth, prejudice and stereotype of New Zealanders and provide a new look at approaches that could ensure a more positive approach to prison policy.

Purpose in undertaking this campaign

A driver in the project was the link with a rich Salvation Army history in the justice system stemming from William Booth’s, own passion for rehabilitation and compassion for prisoners as expressed in the following:.

Our prisons ought to be reforming institutions, which should turn men out better than when they entered their doors. As a matter of fact they are often quite the reverse. There are few persons in this world more to be pitied than the poor fellow who has served his first term of imprisonment or find himself outside the goals doors without a character, and often without a friend in the world. Our people, thank God, have never learnt to regard a prisoner as mere convict. He is ever a human being to them, who is to be cared for and looked after as a mother looks after her ailing child.

A further driver was the biblical tradition. In Matthew 25 Jesus outlines a few actions that form an integral part of how his true followers live. One of them is caring for prisoners

I was in prison and you visited me.

The Bible promotes restitution, redemption and forgiveness as the pathways to healing after a crime. So in mounting this project we were continuing a historical and scriptural mandate of Salvationist mission.

Research Programme

The research firstly considered a wide range of international and national literature and research on the imprisonment. The amount of literature on this subject is mountainous , complex, not easily understandable for the uninitiated.. The need to make the best of this research and information available in a user-friendly way was critical. The report, therefore, presented a factual account of the New Zealand justice environment; present imprisonment rate, the apparent problems and an exploration of potential alternatives.

The second major part of the research explored the knowledge of those within the New Zealand criminal justice system This involved interviews with 50 individuals including Court and Prison Officers, High Court and District Court Judges, criminal lawyers, Queen’s Counsels, probation staff, police, restorative justice facilitators, prison staff, prisoners aid workers, victims and offenders.

The Report

The first part of the report painted a picture of the current situation in New Zealand prisons. New Zealand has one of the highest rates of imprisonment in the developed world. In October 2005 there were over 7500 men and women in New Zealand’s prisons on any given day. This was a prison rate of 181 people in prison per 100,000 population. An imprisonment rate higher than Australia, UK, France, Germany, Finland, Sweden and Japan. New Zealand’s imprisonment rate was only surpassed by the United States which has the highest imprisonment rate in the world.

A snapshot of those in prison in New Zealand revealed worrying trends:

  • Over 90% of prisoners are male
  • Maori making up 14 percent of New Zealand’s total
  • population yet they make up over 50% of the prison population.
  • Most prisoner were between the ages of 20 and 35
  • 73% had an educational qualification of year 11 (form 5 or less)
  • More than half have a mental illness or addictions. Almost
  • 60percent of inmates had a major personality disorder and 90% of those with a major mental disorder also had a substance abuse problem.
  • 58% were in paid work prior to their imprisonment

The picture of New Zealand prison populations was of a large numbers of young men and women who are mentally ill, are addicted to some drug and have limited life, education and work skills.

Our Prisons are full, but do they work?

The next question we considered was if prisons are full and people are imprisoned at a greater rate do prisons work. In considering this question we found that nearly three-quarters of all released inmates were reconvicted within two years of their release, which moved up to 86% reconvicted after 5 years. Most prisoners in New Zealand re-offend and prisons do not deter crime and preventing re-offending.

We found the significant amounts of research and evidence as to why prisons do not work. The summary of these issues was:

  • Prison does not deal with the underlying causes of crime
  • Prison makes rehabilitation more difficult
  • Crime rates are unrelated to punishment
  • Punishment is ineffective in changing behaviour

The summary then of the study of the literature on imprisonment was that it was an ineffective way to deter crime and prevent re-offending.

The next question considered was if prison doesn’t work why are we imprisoning more people?

Perceptions of crime

The first answer is this is what the public wants. TheNew Zealand public has an inaccurate and negative view of crime statistics. A recent survey showed that 83% of new Zealanders surveyed wrongly believed the crime rate had been increasing over the two years prior to the survey.The news media conveys a distorted picture of crime that exacerbates the problem and leads the public to call for harsher penalties.

The second reason for imprisoning people is that Prison Policy is based on public reaction rather than evidence based research. The public perception of crime means that to survive politicians need to be seen to be “tough on crime”. It is not in their political interest to support alternatives as this is not what the public want. It was obvious that if we are to move forward in our stance on prisons, criminal justice policy needs to be founded less on public pressures and more based on research.

Alternative ways of thinking about crime and punishments


Beyond the Holding Tank looked at alternatives that could be considered. Important in these considerations was the experience of Finland. In the 1950s Finland had the highest incarceration rate in the European Union, (and one that was higher than New Zealand’s current rate) with 200 people in prison per 100,000 of the population. All indications were that this rate was going to continue to climb. At the same time crime rates were increasing. Having more people in prison did not deter offending and re-offending. In the late 1960s Finland made a conscious decision to change the direction of its prison and sentencing policy.

From the 1970s the twin aims of criminal policy were:

  • The aim of minimisation – criminal policy’s aim was to minimise the costs and harmful effects of crime.
  • Fair distribution of costs – the costs of crime were to be fairly distributed between the victim, offender and society.

There are five alternatives to imprisonment in the Finnish system:

  • The fine – this is the principal tool,
  • Conditional sentences
  • Conditional prison sentences combined with fines.
  • Community Service.
  • Victim-Offender reconciliation programmes.

Finland also ensures that those who are sentenced to prison are treated humanely. Offenders are able to wear their own clothes, live mostly in cells without observation (as the right to privacy is considered important), and are able to vote while in prison – thus retaining a sense of their identity and responsibility as an individual and a citizen.

The results of these changes were both a reduced rate of imprisonment and a reduction of the fear of crime.

There were many other factors involved in Finland’s change in sentencing policy, many of which are transferable across many social, economic and political structures. Finland was able to achieve a positive change in prison numbers, re-offending and fear of crime, over a relatively short time frame, because:

  • It recognised that the increasing imprisonment rate was a problem and not the answer to crime reduction and a safer society.
  • It had the political will to do so.
  • It developed a multi-party accord that stopped crime being a political football.
  • The reforms to policy were thought through and prepared by a group of experts in criminal policy, and not by politicians.
  • There were judicial authorities that were ready and open to different criminal policies.
  • The Finnish media does not fuel public fear by emphasising crime.

Restorative Justice

Another alternative considered was Restorative Justice. This approach based not on guilt and punishment but rather restoring, through a facilitated process that brings together all affected parties, the dignity and well-being of those involved in and harmed by a criminal incident.

Faith and Cultural Units in Prisons

The experience of Faith and Cultural based units was also considered.

Educational and Vocational Programmes

Educational, vocational, employment programmes provide another alternative to the way prisons currently work with inmates. It was apparent that these programmes were helpful in providing prisoners with something to do and curbing idleness. Yet far more significant is that these programmes offer skills and training, both for work and life, that prove to be key in the rehabilitative process and make re-integration on their release far more positive.

Inmates who participate in these programmes have shown to have reduced re-offending rates, there is less violence in prisons and it creates a more positive prison environment.

However it is vital that these programmes offer meaningful work and training, not just “play work”.


The research showed that New Zealand’s prison policy was unsustainable. Changes to police clearance rates and especially to sentencing and parole, mean that more people are going to prison and staying longer. Combined with a high recidivism rate, this had resulted in a continual crisis in prison beds.

Research also shows that prison has at best only very limited success, if the purpose is to deter offending and re-offending. Offending is in general not perpetrated by people who make rational calculations on the likely consequences. Offending is caused by a complex mix of issues, and prison, as it is currently structured, does not deal with these underlying causes of crime.

New Zealand’s prison system offered very little by way of rehabilitation, with few inmates having access to drug and alcohol programmes, education, or employment.

Given this situation the SPPU argued New Zealand’s current prison policy was unsustainable and ineffective at deterring crime and preventing re-offending. It highlighted that there were alternatives to rehabilitate offenders, reintegrate them into society and restore the dignity and well being of all involved in a crime situation.


There were of course many hundreds of macro and micro recommendations that could have been made in the report. It concentrated on five recommendations, because it was felt they identified the most critical factors for change.

  1. The first recommendation was a public education campaign.
  2. The establishment of an expert advisory board with a review of the sentencing legislation
  3. Restorative Justice, Faith and Cultural Based Units and other rehabilitative and restorative models need to become available nationally.
  4. All inmates are actively involved in employment and/or vocational training by the year 2010
  5. That the Government initiate, and agree prior to the next election, a multi-party accord on crime and justice

After the report

  • The report had significant public impact and led to a number of initiatives including:.
  • Extensive nationwide discussion of the issues involving all aspects of crime and punishment.
  • A High Court Judge stated it was the most significant report on punishment and rehabilitation in ten years.
  • The Prime Minister instructed that all members of Cabinet receive a copy of the report and it was placed on the Government cabinet agenda.
  • The report became the focus of a major New Zealand conference on punishment and rehabilitation involving the judiciary, politicians, senior civil servants and community and business leaders
  • Multi-party meetings were held involving political parties in the New Zealand parliament.
  • The territorial Commander wrote to all soldiers outlining The Salvation Army commitment to a three-year community campaign partnered with Prison Fellowship and involving a widespread coalition of community organisations to bring about prison reform based on “Beyond the Holding Tank
  • A community collation was formed to take up the ides and recommendations of the Social Policy and Parliamentary Unit report.
  • The director of the Social Policy and Parliamentary Unit was appointed by the Minister of Justice to a Criminal Justice Board. The formation of this Board had been one of the recommendations of the report
  • The Salvation Army in New Zealand has become involved in a reintegration programme with offenders as they leave prison

Beyond the Holding Tank has had an important influence on New Zealand starting on the journey towards reforming prison policy. This report has assisted the New Zealand Fiji and Tonga territory to move towards answering the prayer of William Booth, “I pray the prison system might be a reforming institution, which turns men (and women) out better than when they entered their doors”.