Crime and Punishment Debate

New Zealand has the dubious distinction of having the second highest rate of imprisonment among developed countries. Our rates of incarceration are second only to the United States, where some states reputedly spend more on incarceration than education.

The prison population in New Zealand continues to reach record new records, and presently has an imprisonment ratio of 189.7 per 100,000 people, which far exceeds that of other OECD countries outside the United States.

This has taken place at a time when reported crime, across all categories, is the lowest since 1983. Yet, our imprisonment rate since then has more than doubled, and we continue to build more prisons.

Despite this, most New Zealanders do not feel safer – in fact people fear violent crime more than ever before. Victims of crimes continue to feel unsupported and to have little power or voice in a criminal system aimed at punishment.

Those in prison have fewer and fewer opportunities for rehabilitation. Support services including teachers, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and those providing work opportunities and vocational training have all been reduced and even withdrawn. Few prisoners receive access to adequate drug and alcohol treatment programmes or mental health services.

In the Scriptures, we see Christ’s compassion both for victims of crime and for those in prisons. Jesus began his ministry with the declaration that he came to set prisoners free. When he speaks of the final judgement, he identifies himself completely with their treatment when he says “I was a prisoner and you visited me”. At the same time the parable of the Good Samaritan tells of the loving care given by a stranger to a victim of crime, and of those who ignored him. Jesus exhorted his followers to follow the example of the one who was “a neighbour” to the man.

The Catholic Church speaks on criminal justice not as a bystander, but as an institution which has made a substantial commitment to victims of crime and those in prisons. Through agencies such as Catholic social services and hospital chaplaincy we assist those who have suffered the results of crime. The Church also provides prison chaplaincy services throughout the country.

For Catholics and other Christians, the message is about repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation rather than calls for retribution and punishment. This is not a soft option. It is an extraordinary task, a difficult and painful path for both victim and offender, requiring an enormous investment of time, resources and support for all parties. But without repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation our society risks becoming become a more violent and fearful society, creating more victims and more prisoners.

Prisoners themselves need a change of attitude if they are to end their offending and the pain and suffering it causes. But as a prerequisite our society needs a change of attitude. Unless we change our approach to penal policy, our society will continue to become more punitive, judgemental and violent.

We appeal for a more enlightened approach to the problem of crime, with emphasis on cause and prevention, rather than just apprehension and imprisonment. Research shows that a retributive and punitive attitude towards offenders is not the answer to solving crime or reducing re-offending. Indeed, it has had the opposite effect.

Prisons must be places where a person is sent as punishment, but always for the purpose of rehabilitation into society. The demand for retribution has a dehumanising and soul destroying effect on offenders. While we recognize that imprisoning some offenders is necessary for the protection of other people, this is not the sole purpose of prisons. Our prisons must be places where attitudes are corrected. They must be structures which prevent further crime, rather than simply holding prisoners. They must provide opportunities for offenders to address their offending at a personal level, and assist in successful reintegration back into society.

Justice also demands that victims of crime are better supported and compensated than our system provides. In some countries, such as Finland, the money we spend on building new prisons is spent instead on supporting victims. In New Zealand, however, victims often report that criminal justice proceedings leave them feeling ignored and incidental to the process. With their pain overlooked and their wounds unhealed, they feel left to bear alone the costs of their recovery.

These are not new matters for our society. Almost 20 years ago, the Roper report in 1987 warned of an increasingly violent society if we continued along the path of retributive rather than restorative justice.

Ten years ago, we spoke about the same issue: “Too often, offenders repeat their crimes, regardless of the social mayhem this causes. Victims often become embittered and harbour their anger, grief and pain for a lifetime. The community hardens its heart to offenders by demanding longer and harsher penalties. As teachers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we hold that compassion, mercy, healing, sanction where appropriate, and forgiveness leading to reconciliation, lie at the heart of a fair and just criminal justice system. Even the worst of offenders remain children of God.”

In recent months, recommendations have been made by a range of organisations working with prisoners, including Prison Fellowship New Zealand and the Salvation Army. We add our voices to theirs, in particular supporting their recommendations:

  • That the government initiate a review of the Sentencing Act 2002, the Bail Act 2000 and the Parole Act 2002 with a view to reducing the number of offenders who are remanded or sentenced to prison
  • That the government increase the availability of Restorative Justice, Faith and Cultural based prison units and other rehabilitative models/pilots with the aim of making these available nationally
  • That the government direct the Department of Corrections to develop a plan that will enable all inmates to be actively involved in employment and/or vocational training by the year 2010.

In addition we call for a re-examination of the approach taken to people seeking refugee status in New Zealand who are routinely imprisoned while awaiting the outcome of their processes. They should be freed immediately, with appropriate conditions, if they pose no direct threat to national security.

Over the past decade our society has demanded harsher sentences and treatment of those in prisons. In an increasingly violent cycle, both the violence of offenders and the pain and suffering caused to victims has increased, and will continue to grow. We cannot afford to continue in this direction.