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Door to crime: Reoffenders clog court system

By Chelsea Boyle

[email protected]

Masterton District Court can be likened, without exaggeration, to being simply a revolving door for some of Wairarapa’s most persistent criminals.

Over the past three years, roughly two-thirds of people appearing in the dock have had a previous conviction.

It is a number that does not surprise former Masterton police officer Dr Kim Workman who says prison is a “great place to network with other criminals”.

Born and bred in Greytown, Dr Workman is one of the country’s leading advocates for reform in the corrections system.

The evidence shows people are more likely to reoffend when they go to prison, especially if they go for a while, he said.

The Times-Age asked for the numbers of reoffenders going through the Masterton District Court dock in an Official Information Act request.

In 2014, of the 868 people who had charges finalised in Masterton, 633 had been previously convicted.

The following year it was 577 of 778 and last year it was 582 of 786.

In these statistics, only convictions since 1980 were counted as a previous conviction.

For Dr Workman, prison is a big part of the problem that is keeping people coming back to the court dock.

“About two-thirds of all people that go to prison, for example, will reoffend within five years of release,” he said.

“The question then is: ‘Is prison the best place to deal with offenders?’”

“There is plenty of research around what you need to do to make prisons more effective but the larger question is who should go to prison?”

It was a complex issue to address but it was worth considering alternatives such as community-based treatments or programmes that might produce better results, he said.

“The problem often is, for people who are criminally inclined, prison is a great place to network with other criminals.

“The old saying that prisons are a university of crime, is true as well.

“They start to pick up ideas about how to commit crime with a lesser chance of getting caught.”

Prison can also be a violent place, he said.

“Often people leave and they are never really quite the same, they have been traumatised by the experience of prison.”

The Department of Corrections Deputy National Commissioner Rachel Leota said the number of offenders who re-offend had been declining over the past five years, with almost 25 per cent fewer re-offenders in the system than in 2011.

Factors elsewhere in the criminal justice system, such as the prosecution rate, conviction rate, and the type of sentences imposed had resulted in less serious offenders being diverted out of the justice system, she said.

Of those who remain, there is now a “larger proportion of people more likely to reoffend and more difficult to work with”, and a smaller proportion of first time and lower-risk offenders in the system, she said.

The combined effect of which is a negative effect on the re-offending rate.

Dr Workman said that a high number of people were being incarcerated.

About 210 per 100,000 of the population now, compared to about 100 per 100,000, 20 years ago, he said.

Nationally the number of adults sentenced to prison has roughly increased over the past four years.

According to Statistics NZ, the number of adults imprisoned nationally are as follows: 7,480 in 2013; 7,506 in 2014; 7,502 in 2015; and 8,204 in 2016.

Dr Workman believes too many people are bailed in custody, when they could be remanded without presenting a danger to the public.

In 2016, 109 people with charges finalised in Masterton were remanded in custody, 63 of which were remanded both on bail and in custody.

In the same year, 533 people were remanded on bail.

The increased numbers in prison caused by people being unnecessarily remanded in custody, created a greater strain on resources, and rehabilitation programmes usually suffered as a result, Dr Workman said.

It also created a window for young people to be recruited by gangs, he said.

“If they are not members of gangs when they go into prison remanded in custody, they likely will be by the time they leave.”

The Department of Corrections 2015/2016 annual report said that prisoners with gang affiliations committed a disproportionate number of assaults in prisons.

“In 2015, gang affiliated prisoners were responsible for just over half (55 per cent) of assaults despite comprising 29 per cent of the prison population.

“Gangs also play a significant role in the introduction of contraband to Corrections sites.

“The introduction of prohibited items or substances can undermine the security, integrity and safety of prisons, and can present significant challenges to prisoners who are working to resolve issues such as substance abuse.

“Our range of anti-contraband activities, including cell searches, drug tests, detector dogs and scanning of visitors to prisons, all help to reduce the accessibility of and harm caused by contraband, and can reduce the influence of gangs within the prison system.”

Ms Leota said about 15,000 people are released from prison each year, and thousands more complete community-based sentences.

“There’s plenty of evidence that prison and community programmes that address the underlying causes of offending can have very positive results, especially when they have the support of family, whanau, and friends.”

There are several rehabilitation programmes on offer for prisoners.

“The 2015/16 financial year saw the largest number of prisoners participating in the Department’s Drug Treatment Unit (DTU) programmes per annum,” Ms Leota said.

“The DTU are a live-in therapeutic environment for prisoners with alcohol and drug related issues.

“The aim of the programme is to reduce re-offending by assisting programme participants to address their dependence on alcohol and other drugs.

“The six-month DTU programmes showed positive results in 2015/16, with reductions in rates of both reconviction and re-imprisonment.”

Reducing re-offending was at the heart of what we do at Corrections, she said.

It was a theme being tackled by justice systems around the world and any reduction was positive.


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