This was going to be a comment in response to tatjna‘s comments on penal policy, but been thinking about Dame Sian Elias’ speech, which caused a bit of a tiff back in July. Given that she’s Chief Justice of NZ, she probably knows what she’s talking about.
So, what’s the purpose of prison and does it work for that purpose?
There’s several questions I’ve got about rehabilitation and I’d love to see some evidence. How well does it work? Does it have a stronger effect than the negative effect of being locked up with other criminals? Who does it work for? How well can we separated people into those that can be rehabilitated and those that can’t? If we can’t answer those questions, then rehabilitation isn’t going to help change criminals into law-abiding citizens.
Given that half of prisoners in NZ re-offend within five years of release, it clearly doesn’t work well. Then again, half don’t.
Similarly questions exist for retribution, are criminals making rational choices and will they be deterred by a some risk of some punishment at some point in the future? Here’s the Lord Chief Justice of England on the life histories of typical offenders:
“He is usually male, and often of low intelligence, and addicted to drugs or alcohol, frequently from an early age. His family history will often include parental conflict and separation; a lack of parental supervision; harsh or erratic discipline; and evidence of emotional, physical or sexual abuse. At school he will have achieved no qualification of any kind, and will probably have been aggressive and troublesome, often leading to his exclusion or to truancy. The background will be one of poverty, poor housing, instability, association with delinquent peers and unemployment.”
We can add to that higher rates of mental illness. The idea that criminals are making rational choices looks like a fairly silly one, leaving retribution looking ineffective at changing the behaviour of criminals.
And the third option – isolation without any attempt to change criminals – is expensive ($100k per person per year) and only prevents crime while criminals are locked up. At some point, most will be released and be free to commit more crimes, unless we want car thieves to get life sentences.
One conclusion from Dame Shirley:
“Penal policy is largely irrelevant to reduction of crime and to making our communities safest.”
Given that NZ spends over $700 million on prisons, it’s a tad embarrassing to hear that they are irrelevant.
There’s a more fundamental question in Dame Shirley’s speech that points to a long-term solution:
“What turns ‘blameless babes (as all criminals once were) into the stuff of nightmares?”
If the roots of criminality lie in early-childhood education and health, or the lack of it, then there lies the solution. There is good evidence that support for parents and caregivers in deprived areas improves life chances for those kids. The UK is one of the leaders into research here, thanks to Thatcherite polices that gave us an underclass. Here’s one example of the research. So this kind of approach may well reduce crime, but not till those kids grow up, so there’ll be little effect upon crime for fifteen years.
It’s also a social democratic, ‘Government knows better than parents’ approach, pretty much the definition of a Nanny State intervention, so I can see a push for that going down like a tonne of bricks in NZ.
[EDIT – Then again, maybe there’s hope? “Back to class for bad kids’ parents” from the Dom Post today.]