Sentencing and Parole Bill – Keith’s speeches In Committee

First, I give the condolences of the Green Party to the family of the prison guard who was so tragically killed by a prisoner recently. I think that hangs over what we are debating here today. We want to reduce violence in our society and violence in our prisons. David Garrett says that the Sentencing and Parole Reform Bill is about reducing the number of victims, and I believe he is sincere, and that is the aim of the bill. I just happen to disagree that this bill will reduce the number of victims of crime, including serious violent crime, in our society.

I think Chris Hipkins was right when he said, in an earlier speech, that we really should be focusing on prevention, which includes rehabilitation, and not on retribution. So partly, what we are discussing here is a different philosophy of how to deal with people who commit crime, when they are in prison. There was an interesting article in the Time magazine of 10 May about Norway’s second-largest prison, which opened on 8 April and which has a completely different focus from our prisons as they currently are—well, not completely, but it has a very strong emphasis on rehabilitation. Their concept is that being in prison is itself the punishment, and all the effort should be placed on rehabilitation. The governor said that in the Norwegian prison system there is a focus on human rights and respect.

Later on the article talks about the prison guards having meals with inmates, and all kinds of things that are really pushing people on the road to rehabilitation. They give some statistics. Twenty percent of Norway’s prisoners end up in jail again 2 years after their release. I do not have the exact New Zealand figures to hand, but they are much, much higher. The prison numbers, as a result of that relatively low rate of reoffending, mean that Norway, which has about the same population as New Zealand, has 3,300 prisoners, whereas the current figure in New Zealand is, I do not know, 8,500 to 9,000—about three times as much for the same population.

I think we can learn from that. To just say we should abolish parole, which is essential for prisoners’ transition from prison to society, for a certain category of prisoners, is going in completely the opposite direction, and will only raise the rate of reoffending and the rate of violent crime, which this bill is intended to deal with. Judith Collins, in her speech, said that there were those who will never learn. The bill was directed at that section of the prison population. Sure, there may be some prisoners who are so distorted in their personalities, etc., that they will never learn, but I think the approach is not to define prisoners, because of the nature of the crimes they commit, as being beyond rehabilitation.

The potential for rehabilitation is partly an independent factor, and we must try every possibility, particularly for the most violent criminals, to get prisoners on the right path when they leave jail, and not just hold over their head the three strikes – type policy or elimination of parole. Unless we have that approach, which involves having some empathy for the prisoners, we are like them. One of the things that worries me is that if we define a certain category of these prisoners as “evil”, “beyond rehabilitation”, and everything else, we are almost denying in ourselves the empathy that is a part of the criminal psyche. The criminal commits violent robbery, murder, and so on, usually lacking the empathy towards the victim that would enable that crime to be prevented. We have to turn it the other way round and try to get those prisoners, while they are in jail, to have some social concern and to think beyond their own narrow interests.