New Zealand Law Society - Social investment could cut prison population

Social investment could cut prison population

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Is a 14-year-old boy who is committing burglaries more likely to have a long history of violent crime compared to a teenager of the same age who is regularly a truant and drug user?

The Justice Minister, Amy Adams, says being able to definitively answer questions like that through investing in predictive analytics could not only produce fewer adult criminals but also fewer victims of crime.

It is not a silver bullet answer to ongoing social issues and neither is it an overnight cure but the minister’s plan could be a trigger for understanding what creates many criminals who are currently incarcerated.

So what is social investment?

It’s about looking outside the justice system and connecting the common dots.

The ability to be able to change the behaviour of some people later in life is far less than if intervention occurs at an early vulnerable stage, Ms Adams says.

“I’ve said for a long time that the biggest drivers as to the number of people that will come into the criminal justice system are what’s happening in education, what’s happening with Child Youth and Family and what’s happening in health.

“Ministers sit around talking about the budget and social ministers talk about all the various ways we could spend social sector money.

“As the Justice Minister I find myself arguing generally for more spending [on] education, mental health, and the review of child youth and family. [That is] because I know that the biggest single thing that we can do to stop people ending up in the justice system and stop the crimes happening and the victims being created is getting them educated, getting them into jobs and making sure we are dealing with alcohol and drug issues, mental health issues, and making sure we are dealing with the trauma and abuse in homes that some children are going through growing up, [and making sure that] is being picked up early,” Ms Adams says.

There are four streams of work being focused on:

  • measuring the burden of crime;
  • building statistical models on who is at risk of future offending and victimisation;
  • understanding what works to reduce crime; and
  • connecting these insights with policy decision-makers across the system.

“We need a way of understanding the cost and burden of crime in its various forms, so we need to know that if a sexual assault has been committed – what is the cost to society, and I’m not talking just about the fiscal cost of taking a person to court and sending them to prison. I’m talking about the psychological ramifications on the victims, the loss of productive earnings and the flow-on effects to their family.

“We have to have a way of measuring the total cost in the broader sense on society. It might be that if we can reduce sexual violence by 10%, we have a much greater win to society than if we reduce assaults by 10%,” she says.

A richer story

Ms Adams says it is time to move away from a volume measure of crime to one that’s more comprehensive and tells a richer story.

Crime is at its lowest level in more than 35 years and fewer young people are facing court, with youth crime down by nearly 40%.

But the prison population number is appalling by international standards.

In 2014/15, 194 people out of every 100,000 people were put behind bars, placing New Zealand 7th highest in the OECD just behind Mexico.

“We have an exploding prison population which is somewhat counter-intuitive given we have a falling crime rate.

“On the one hand that is a real problem for us as taxpayers as it is a massive fiscal cost but I don’t in any way apologise for the fact the people who are in prison need to be in prison and if they’re bad and the public is at risk by them, they should be locked up. That is a non-negotiable for me, so we don’t in my view address the prison population numbers by locking people up for shorter times or not locking as many people up. We address that issue with the rising prison population by saying we need to do more to stop people getting into the situation where this occurs,” she says.

How to reduce the cycle of serious crime

Referring to the horrific child abuse death of baby Moko Rangitoheriri last year by his carers, the minister says: “we need to get further up the tree to stop people from getting to the point where this is the way they act”.

“They didn’t come out of the womb like that,” she says.

She says Deputy Prime Minister, Bill English talks about the so-called million dollar kids.

“We can look at a group of 5-7 year olds who are on track to cost the taxpayer half a million to a million dollars each in government services by the time they’re 30. Wouldn’t it be far better to invest in trying to make sure they lead healthy productive lives?”

Before a relatively recent entry into Government life, Ms Adams worked mostly in the private sector as a practising lawyer and says the silo nature of the approach to policy was something she found not ideal.

“Health think about their issues as health, Education as education, Justice as justice, yet they’re all interconnected.

“When Health are thinking about where they spend their money. I want them thinking about not what will just reduce the health budget but also the impact the spending they make has on the criminal justice system,” she says.

“They might invest $100 million in mental health and there’ll be savings generated in terms of lower health costs, but I would hypothesise that the savings in the justice system will be even greater, similarly the education system when a truancy officer is working with a young child.

“The impacts of truancy on their education is one thing but actually we know that as a characteristic of future offending, truancy is an early warning indicator and we have to understand how important it is that kids are continuing to engage in school for justice reasons.

“It’s getting all of those things linked up so that when Cabinet is sitting around and making decisions about the value of an investment or the merit of an investment, we are not just looking at it through the side-eyed lens of an education spend and education outcomes, health spend and health outcomes. We’re saying this spend in education, yes it will have some educational benefits but the benefits on the social welfare system, the justice system, the health system are tenfold and we need to look at it in that totality.

Ms Adams says a recent announcement of a $2 million investment in data analytics capability will stretch a long way to building clever analytical models, predictive modelling and risk-based modelling, to get the kind of insights that will then drive better policy making to further reduce the creation of criminals and therefore victims of their offending.

“That prison population of over 9,000 may drop off then. We have to address it by creating fewer criminals.

“It’s not about just locking people up who are dangerous to society, it’s about ensuring they’re not dangerous, fewer victims, so the best thing I can do for victims is not just supporting them when they’ve become a victim but ensuring they don’t become one in the first place.

“This is long term. You’re not going to be back here next year saying has it worked, as it’s a long-term piece of thinking and investment because you’re talking about intergenerational cycles,” she says.

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