About Time – Matt Robson Speech

Published: Fri 18 May 2001 02:17 PM
Address to the North Harbour Law Society
North Shore Rowing club
Northcote Rd extension, Takapuna.
1.30PM Friday, 18 May 2001
You have asked me to talk about the politics of penal reform.
This is a particularly suitable day to talk on that topic.
Today I released a major report called “About Time.’
It’s a report on turning people away from a life of crime and reducing re-offending.
This is my first opportunity to speak publicly about it.
“Penal reform’ is not a phrase on the lips of most New Zealanders.
There are no Mark Middletons marching in the streets for penal reform.
Talk-back callers don’t phone in outraged at the lack of opportunity for prison inmates.
People are afraid of crime.
The message the public wants to hear is that they will be kept safe from criminal attack.
Of course it’s true that the chance of being murdered, raped or attacked by a roaming stranger are nearly zero.
There are approximately 110 homicides per year and by far the majority of offenders are known to their victims.
But crime has more widespread effects than that.
Every time we hear about a crime, we tend to feel less safe.
Every person who is forced to alter their lifestyle in some way out of fear of crime is paying the price for crime.
The message for politicians from that is that we have a responsibility as politicians to listen to the fear of crime.
And we have a responsibility to act to make the public safer.
This Labour Alliance Coalition Government is doing that in two ways.
The first step that I announced in March with my colleague the Minister of Justice was a new Sentencing and Parole Bill.
This is an initiative that I have always strongly supported, and I am pleased that we have had the opportunity to put it into law.
The new Sentencing and Parole Act will ensure that offenders who remain dangerous will not be eligible for early release.
We have preventive detention for offenders who are dangerous and who cannot be reformed.
These are the Paul Dally’s and the Taffy Hotene’s. The offenders that the public thinks of when they think of particularly awful crimes.
They are the “terrible few’ and they can be distinguished from the majority in our prisons who are the “sad many.’
The sad many drive while disqualified, or steal, or take drugs.
29% of offenders are in prison for property offences, 22% for traffic offences, and 20% for other offences including drugs.
I’m not saying that these offenders shouldn’t be in prison.
But I am saying that what we do with them while they’re inside will make the difference between a crime rate that goes up or down.
New Zealand has the second highest rate of imprisonment in the world.
One of the fascinating facts in the About Time report is that changing the rate of imprisonment doesn’t affect the crime rate.
For example, Finland cut the number of crimes punishable by imprisonment.
The prison population fell.
The crime rate didn’t change.
Some states of the US went the other way and put offenders away for much longer terms.
The prison population began growing enormously.
The crime rate didn’t change.
The point is that the likelihood of going to prison doesn’t seem to affect whether or not offenders go out and commit crimes.
So if we want to reduce crime, then there must be something else we can do to keep the public safe.
The most effective way to reduce crime is to intervene before people start out on a life of crime and to stop them from re-offending.
The report I released today is called “About Time.’
It’s a good title.
It is about time a government finally did something about the level of offending before it occurred.
We’re not just cleaning up the mess - although we have to do that too.
We are also trying to stop the mess in the first place.
There are ten recommendations in the report.
The first four involve prevention: They focus on reducing serious crime by reducing the number of serious offenders.
Tomorrow’s hard core of offenders can be found largely among the children of today’s socially and economically disadvantaged families.
This what the report says:
“Young people who are at risk of becoming serious adult offenders are recognisable with increasing certainty as newborns, as school entrants, as young offenders and as early adult offenders.’
Each of the main risk factors increases the probability of anti-social behaviour by four to ten times. The key risk factors are where the mother is:
- Young;
- Has little education;
- Is from a disadvantaged family where she received little care or attention;
- Is substance dependent;
- Is socially isolated;
- And, has a number of male partners.
I want to emphasise that this background doesn’t condemn a child to adult offending. But it increases the risk.
If all of these factors appear together, the risk increases many hundreds of times.
So the first recommendation in About Time is to reduce the number of highest risk births.
We can do that by working with young women who fit the profile and who are in the social welfare and justice systems.
They need sexual health services - teaching them about contraception and avoiding exploitation.
Teaching young women about the advantages of delaying child bearing until they are settled, mature and suitable support is available.
The cost for each intervention is about $500.
The benefit to cost ratio has been assessed as fifty to one.
We need to back that up with more support for high-risk new mothers.
This what I call the “James Whakaruru’ situation.
A child born into that tragic situation who had survived would have been at very high risk of teenage and adult offending.
We can improve our efforts to intervene in some of those cases.
Family Start programmes are a good example of the sort of assistance that can be provided.
Each intervention costs about $3000.
The benefit to cost ratio is assessed at twenty-five to one.
And then we can move to children as they enter school.
These children include the hypothetical five year old that Ces Lashlie spoke about recently.
Teachers have long been able to identify many of the school entrants that they believe will end up as adult offenders.
For example an intervention for a five year old who is aggressive and defiant is estimated to cost about $5000 per case with a success rate of 70%.
The same behaviour at the age of 25 years costs $20,000 and has a success rate of only 20%.
Earliest possible intervention works best and costs less.
Children who are at risk of progressing to serious adult offending get easier to identify between the ages of ten and fifteen.
That is when they begin their offending career.
The single most powerful indicator of a trajectory to serious adult offending is early repeat offending as a child.
The obvious risk factors include failure at school, substance abuse, deviant friends and a family that has problems - poor supervision, criminal parents and child abuse.
The remedies that work are fairly simple:
- Re-entry to school, with some incentive for doing well;
- Better parenting
- A complete ban on alcohol and drug use
- New social activities and friends.
Working with these kids to prevent them moving on to serious adult offending would mean intervention with about two thousand kids a year, at a cost of about $7000 each.
If one in four of them would move on to a lifetime of offending without the intervention, and one in three interventions actually works, then the benefit-cost ratio is about 36-1.
All of the programmes I have mentioned so far are preventive measures.
They are aimed at turning people away from a life of crime.
Of course, they will result in some interventions where none would have turned out to have been needed.
The earlier you intervene, the more effective the result, but the harder it is to work out where the intervention is needed.
And therefore, of course, many people who will go on to offend will still slip through the net.
The benefit-to-cost studies show it is still worth making the effort to intervene where possible.
I am personally committed to these preventive measures.
The success of the interventions will take a generation to make an impact on levels of adult offending.
That is why so little has been done about this before.
Politicians are always tempted to pretend they can offer quick fixes to serious problems.
The preventive measures I have talked about are not quick fixes, but they are effective.
They will take enormous co-ordination across a number of government agencies.
Corrections, health, CYFS, education and others will all have a role.
I believe that we can have a start on many of these ideas under way by this time next year. I have discussed this with Cabinet. The Government is committed to this course of action.
The next strategy is aimed at alternative sentencing for teenagers.
This combines two main principles:
- Ensuring that teenage offenders who are dangerous are kept out of the community;
- Where possible, intensive intervention with teenagers who are at the beginning of a lifetime of crime.
More than half of the teenagers who enter the adult justice system are re-convicted within one year of ending their sentence.
About 80 or 90% are re-convicted within five years.
The About Time report recommends intensive rehabilitation in Day Reporting Centres.
What Day Reporting Centres do can be easily summarised:
- They give the kids job skills and life skills;
- They help to place them in jobs;
Dangerous teenage offenders who commit violent and sexual offences would still go to prison.
For the others an offence will still result in the appropriate penalty, but some of it could be withheld in return for good performance.
Significant sanctions and rewards would apply to encourage offenders to participate.
Effective services for young Maori could be achieved by using existing iwi and marae support structures, where possible.
There would be an emphasis on so-called “multi-systemic therapy'. That is what we all do or should do with our kids. It is a fancy name for dealing with all the issues, and it has produced 50% reductions in subsequent offending in trials overseas.
Attendance at day Reporting Centres would be compulsory five days a week for six months, and might be accompanied by night curfews and electronic monitoring.
The units cost about $10,000 per offender to run, with a benefit to cost return of 37-1.
Some non-violent young offenders are better treated and cured outside of the toxic mix that is inside our prisons.
If we just write teenagers off when they first enter the adult justice system, then in most cases we are accepting that a lifetime of crime will result.
That also means accepting that they will spend a lifetime creating victims of their offending.
I’m not prepared to accept that.
Work on alternative sentencing for teenagers is already under way.
I hope that later this year I will be able to bring some proposals forward to establish Day Reporting Centres and to introduce intensive intervention programmes.
Progress on the next strategy will be even more rapid.
In the budget next week I will announce funding for new rehabilitation programmes aimed at the “sad many’ who are already in the prison system.
We’re starting at the easiest end, simply because we know where these people are - they’re in prison, they’re easy to identify and we can compel their co-operation.
One programme involves working on the rehabilitation of repeat disqualified drivers.
Research has shown this group is likely to respond to intense and specific rehabilitation.
Offenders who drive while disqualified break many laws in addition to traffic laws.
By the time they are imprisoned for disqualified driving they have an average of 21 prior convictions.
The MODS programme - Making Our Drivers Safe - is an intensive 100 hour programme.
Offenders who have taken part have 18% fewer convictions than a similar group who did not participate in the programme.
In the budget I am going to announce an expansion of the MODS programme.
It will reduce re-offending and make the public safer.
A recent survey found that 83% of prisoners had a problem with either alcohol or drugs.
The most successful drug and alcohol programmes in the prisons and in the community reduce re-offending in the high risk group of multiple offenders by a third.
In the budget I am going to announce intensive alcohol and drug programmes.
Because they work.
They reduce re-offending and make the public safer.
I believe the approach I’ve outlined today will - over time - make a serious dent in offending behaviour.
But it’s also important to be realistic about the likely success rate.
Overall, even if we do everything in this report, there will still be significant offending.
All of the options I have outlined today, taken together, could reduce imprisonable offending by around 17% a year, eventually.
So I’m not dewy-eyed about the scale of the challenge.
But I am committed to making a start.
The programme I have outlined today recognises that some criminals cannot and will not change.
We will keep the public safe from their offending through the new Sentencing and Parole Acts.
It also recognises that some rehabilitation programs are successful with some offenders.
And yet I fully expect to be attacked by the Opposition for outlining the options.
I looking forward to hearing them squeal about it.
In my view, the political parties that are opposed to this report are effectively pro-crime.
They are not really interested in doing anything meaningful about offending behaviour.
They ignore or even attack genuine attempts to turn people away from a life of crime and reduce re-offending.
Our political opponents have demanded that we build more prisons.
We are doing that, and they have opportunistically objected to every new prison or youth justice facility in the country.
Then they have tried to claim that I am soft on crime, but they will object to this report which will reduce crime if its recommendations are implemented.
Next time someone in New Zealand gets attacked, the finger of blame will point at them.
Act and National mostly ignored ideas that work to reduce crime when they were in office.
In Opposition they repeatedly attack the ideas that make the public safer.
You asked me to talk about the politics of penal reform.
In my view, there is an irony in the politics of penal reform.
National and Act have been slow to accept responsibility for all the victims they have created.
And yet those two parties claim to be tough on crime.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
This Government is making New Zealanders safer by ensuring that offenders who are still dangerous are not released early.
We can make New Zealanders safer still by reducing re-offending.
And we can make New Zealanders safer by turning people away from a life of crime.
Thank you for the opportunity to outline some of the ways I am going about trying to achieve just that.

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