Penal Reform

In every society there are injustices that cry out for the community to recognise and redress.

New Zealand society is no exception.

Every injustice is an offence against God and human dignity.

Our God is a God of justice who has created all people as social beings, morally responsible and answerable to each other. God's justice is the intertwining thread of grace that links us to each other and guides our social relations.

An area of our social life requiring urgent consideration now is penal reform.

Earlier this year, a Ministerial Committee of Inquiry into the Prisons System, led by Sir Clinton Roper, described our penal institutions as generally destructive and violent and a waste of public funds. The Committee pointed to the way present prison structures cripple individual self-esteem, often damaging it beyond repair.

Any form of punishment that goes beyond the just deprivation of liberty is wrong. Yet this is what is happening in our prisons.

As well as punishing, many of our maximum and medium prison structures are responsible for destroying, partially or totally, temporarily or permanently, those confined within their walls.

The existence of such prisons is an affront to human dignity. They reveal an inability to punish justly and sufficiently. They are a poison in the bloodstream of our nation.

The reflections by Sir Clinton Roper and his committee into imprisonment in this country have, therefore, come at a critical time. Their report has produced twin proposals to form the philosophical base for our future penal policy:

  1. Secure, human containment of imprisonment for those offenders who do not wish to change their ways;
  2. The option for the sentenced offender to go, immediately after sentencing, to a Habilitation Centre.

These proposals are extremely encouraging. They offer a new and much needed direction for the future. We hope they will find wide acceptance in the community .

The idea of "habilitation" is particularly enlightened. It implies a therapeutic setting, enabling offenders to turn their lives around and find the motivation to cease offending.

There is an important tradition flowing from the Hebrew scriptures and endorsed by the Christian Church, which, at its very core, promotes hope even in the face of the greatest adversity, and holds out the prospect of a change of life. Habilitation appeals to this rich tradition.

If implemented, Habilitation Centres will be in places where offenders can face their crimes and, with appropriate guidance, attempt to deal with causes.
We agree this would be a tough option, far harder than sitting out time in a cell. But it is precisely in that negative, passive, soul-destroying atmosphere that offenders "harden", become embittered, and therefore are most likely to re-offend.

Offenders with the courage to accept the tougher option to face their crimes, their addictions, the cultural alienation that
can be the seedbed for crime, should have the opportunity available.

In the present system, no one convicted of a crime is expected to face the results and implications of their offence. They simply do their time. Release from prison brings no guarantee of a change of life-style.

It is hard to imagine a more destructive and wasteful method of spending public funds.

The "habilitation" concept is an enlightened and courageous proposal. Under it, offenders would have to face up to their offending. Habilitation gives justice a human face.

It recognises that even those justly sentenced for criminal offending must not be deprived of their dignity as persons. Further, by offering the opportunity for weaknesses to be strengthened and hurts to be healed, it is also a sharing of the riches of the community.

The alternative is to continue along the present path, a demonic, downward path that will quickly turn Aotearoa/New Zealand into the most imprisoned society in the Western world per head of population. That is the road we are travelling.

Habilitation offers another way. The new way. Te ara hou.

We urge Government to take the Prison Review seriously and to immediately begin the process of implementing Habilitation Centres.
We strongly believe in the potential of these Centres to bring the crime rate down, to lessen fear in the community, and to give more security in our homes and on our streets.

Such a step will help create a more just society and bring a better quality of life for all.