Before colonisation Maori had a justice system in which the community were directly involved in deciding punishment. The death penalty or banishment could be imposed, but the most common punishment was confiscation of the perpetrator’s possessions for the benefit of the victim.

Europeans come from a tradition where criminals were paraded in the town centre. They were abused and shamed in various ways. The stocks sufficed for petty crimes. Lashing was popular. Regular public hangings were a reminder of the consequence for serious offence, and if you were silly enough to fail at treason, you ran the risk of being pulled apart by horses tethered to your limbs.

With the Industrial Revolution punishment of criminals shifted from being exacted against the body to being taken out on the soul.  Instead of public humiliation, criminals were deprived of their liberty, locked away from public sight in buildings that resembled factories.

This is the system introduced by our colonial forefathers and is based on the idea of the State acting on the victim’s behalf. The law is broken, and if deemed serious enough, the State, and the State alone has the power to take away the perpetrator’s freedom (on behalf of the victim)

Today in Hawke’s Bay we process crimes against the State at Mangaroa prison which looks like an industrial complex.  And that’s what it is, not with the same commercial imperatives as an abattoir or cannery, but the same industrialisation of processing its product.

We have chosen punishment to be constant surveillance in a sterile environment, and our current prison model looks more like animal husbandry than a humanised institution. Prisoners are caged, fed and watered, exercised, and managed on a strict timetable. Their lives more resemble those of battery chickens than human beings.

However, at Mangaroa, we have a factory where the poorest, least educated, and most social deprived members of our society, are processed into harder criminals.

Most of the prisoners in Mangaroa didn’t stand a chance. Neglected and abused as children, illiterate, addicted to alcohol and drugs, some mentally ill, they are societies failure more than their own. Instead of recognising our failure to support the poorest and least capable members of our society, we degrade them further by locking them away in soulless prison factories, out of sight, out of mind.

Those who advocate more and longer prison sentencing must be driven by an ideology which blinds them from seeing that mostly it is not sin that produces crime but deprivation; that imprisonment of the criminal escalates rather than diminishes crime; that punishment brutalises the society which administers it even more than the criminal who receives it.

New Zealand’s second highest ranking in the OECD for imprisonment is not an indicator of our toughness on crime. Rather it exposes our weakness in supporting those least able to support themselves in a society they find hostile and alien. It is a sign of our callousness and cruelty.

This year a Ministry of Education screening tool trailed on 197 New Zealand prison inmates, showed that 90% were not functionally literate and 80% were not functionally numerate.

Among these inmates are the serial serious offenders who are of greatest concern and have aroused the public’s call for harsher and longer sentencing.

Out of perhaps 50,000 cases a year processed in the criminal justice system, around 3,500 can be categorised as ‘lifetime offenders’. The mean cost to victims and ratepayers of an offender’s lifetime of crime is $3m. (The Origins of Serious Offending – About Time)

Numerous longitudinal studies, but most relevantly the Christchurch Health and Development Study, point to a child’s birth circumstances and upbringing being the prime factors in leading to adult imprisonment. Tomorrow’s prison inmates can be identified very early on in their lives, and initiatives are now underway to support those children and their families.

For as little as $5,000 invested in early recognition and intervention, the State can save itself $3m in future costs, and save a life.

Teenage delinquents are harder to soften. John Key’s ‘boot camp’ idea takes it’s name from the military and smacks of past failures, like Corrective Training with a 94.5%  re-offending rate. Instilling discipline by force is archaic, but giving troubled youth the opportunity to ‘fresh start’ in a composite Marae/ Outward Bound model, linked with special needs education and mentoring, is more likely to succeed.

John Key says, ‘we’ve got issue with 1000 young New Zealanders.’ Instead of sending them off to, ‘Army style correction camps,’ Key should change his punitive attitude, and seek compassionate solutions to their illiteracy, low self esteem, lack of social skills, and victim mentality.

Probably there will always be psychopaths and others so severely antisocial they need to be drafted out. Imprisonment is here to stay. But an aim of any civilised society should surely be to reduce the number of citizens so degraded.

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  1. The idea that an "investment" of "as little as $5000 in early recognition and intervention can save the state $3million in future costs and save a life" is an attractive one. Has your writer any

    detail to flesh out this dream? As far as I am aware a very large number of well-intentioned people have worked hard on this problem over a long time with very little success. What have they missed?

  2. Ian – I confess to a provocative sentence to highlight the cost benefit of early intervention (pre-school) with those children most at risk of ending up in prison. The Christchurch study clearly identified the background criteria. I understand the emphasis on early childhood intervention is a comparatively new approach.

  3. Mark, it is very irresponsible of you to knowingly speak nonsense under the guise of serious debate. How can you expect anyone to take you, or your views, seriously when you admit to telling porkies.

    Incidentally, your understanding that "the emphasis on early childhood intervention is a comparatively new approach" is equally flawed. Was it the Marist Brothers who are said to have claimed "Give us the boy until seven and we will give you the Man." The Spartans took male children at an early age to create the warriors who were committed to the survival of the state. Baden Powell and his Boy Scouts, the Girl Guides, the Boys' Brigade, Sunday Schools, all have a long established history of "early intervention".

    Ian McIntosh

  4. Well compiled Mark Sweet.

    Ian McIntosh would do well to spend a Wednesday Morning in The Napier Courthouse(as I have for the past 17 months)

    Any positive change away from retributive justice towards community justice will require legislation from government.

    As of now, the Napier Court is too busy, and provides work for many, for time to offer any positive change from prison to community based solutions, agreed by al political parties years ago (apart of course for dangerous few)

    A recent 2 page Dominion Weekend Post feature by Marty Sharpe on the life and work of H.B Judge Judge Tony Adeane, and his big bike, showed little concern or community solutions for the plight of many offenders from Napier,

    We therefore, have no option in the meantime but to keep the prison drafting race " well oiled",in the hope a new breed of Marist Bros, Sunday School Teachers "or just common folks like you and me",will find positive solutions to communnity isolation, hypocrisy and all that goes with "being unable to love our neighbour"

  5. Ian – you're making a big issue out of a simple statement – that a small investment in early intervention with at risk children can save the cost of their imprisonment later on.

    $3m as the cost to the taxpayer for a life time of crime comes from Govt stats. $5000 to identify an at risk child was a guess. I admit that. Perhaps i should have said $50,000.

    You're are very harsh critic if one exaggeration renders all other opinion untenable. But I take your criticism seriously and will be more careful in future.

    Pat – thanks for your support. It's folk like you working at the 'coal face' & teachers & social services workers who have informed my opinion on this subject.

  6. At a time when a thousand people are becoming unemployed per week * surely we need more low-cost housing, and more free or low cost education to keep unemployed people learning and engaged.

    So what did the last budget give us to solve the unemployment (and housing?) problem?

    The axing of subsidised adult night school classes; and the promise to build more prisons.

    I tell you, they're going to need them! An increase in unemployment means an increase in poverty, crime, ill health, stressed families and social disengagement.

    Those problems are not solved by locking people away: you don't have to be a rocket scientist to know that will only exacerbate them.

    The slashing of just $13 million from the Night School budget has in effect killed this whole sector of subsidised community education. Gone for good. With it the $1.6 million of that that goes into community groups who have increasing needs and diminishing resources.

    Unless we can persuade the government to reverse them. It;'s up to us to put pressure on the Minister, local MP and the Prime Minister. You can download a petition on . You can hear details on a podcast of this morning's 11 am programme with Radio NZ National host Chris Laidlaw.

    It's worth fighting for!

    (*my source was Phil Goff in parliamentary debate – the figure was not challenged by the Prime Minister)

  7. It would be easier to have an informed debate if contributors remembered that imprisonment is a response to criminal activity. I do not think that anyone has ever claimed that imprisonment solves poverty, ill health, stressed families and social disengagement.

    The activities of fraudulent businesspeople, criminal gangs etc may not only be explained by "social inequality". In some instances it is as simple as the fact that "crime DOES pay" and very well too.

    One of the problems with "early intervention" has always been that it is often interpreted as trampling on the rights of individuals to make their own decisions, however ill-informed we might consider them to be.

    Ian McIntosh

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