Positive Justice

Prison isn’t the solution

If it were, we would know by now. 

New Zealand is stuck in a vicious cycle. Every year we lock up more people. That doesn’t tackle the causes of crime (which are more about social and economic conditions – addressed by some of our other policies). The evidence, in fact, suggests that prison is one of the significant causes of crime. Given that, it is just not smart for our criminal justice system to keep locking up more and more people.

New Zealand prison population rate (prisoners per 100,000 of the general population) - 1950-2016


An expensive record

As a proportion of its general population, New Zealand has the 2nd highest prison population in the western world (after the United States). It is 84% higher than the developed country average of 114. This fact alone should be enough to ring alarm bells and make policy change a priority.

Prison is expensive. Each occupied prison bed costs about $100,000 a year. The cost of running New Zealand prisons is now $900m a year, an increase of around 400% since 2000.

The vicious cycle

Every year we lock up more people, many of whom need help with basic literacy, mental illness and drug addiction. Prisons are not good places to deal with these problems. But worst of all, prisons nurture crime – they help criminals to network and gangs to recruit.

People leave prison more likely to commit crimes than before they went in. Six months after being released, around 18% will be back in prison. Within 5 years, around 50% will be back in prison, and around 70% reconvicted of some offence. So, there’s no evidence here that prison reduces reoffending.

Prisoners are not the only people affected, so are their families. At any one time, something like 20,000 children have a parent in prison, and sadly those children are 5 times more likely to end up in prison than a child whose parents are never in prison.

No end in sight

Our current criminal justice policy will almost certainly see a steady growth in the prison population. The Government acknowledges this when it tells us it is spending $1bn on a new 1,800-bed prison. By our calculations, it will need another $1bn prison by 2025.

Successive Governments have tightened bail conditions, lengthened custodial sentences and made parole harder to get; in short, put more people in prison for longer. These are the drivers of a soaring prison population. Given the evidence that prison is not the answer, this has to change.

TOP – break the cycle

Our objective is a justice system that focuses on rehabilitation rather than incarceration. We want to get the prison population down from 210 to near the developed country average of 114 prisoners per 100,000 of the general population, or a total of no more than 6,000, by 2027.

We calculate that the difference between reducing the prison population to 6,000 over the next 10 years and allowing it to steadily grow is conservatively $4.5bn. This money could be better used to kick start a virtuous cycle of rehabilitation, reduced crime and lower costs (as well as on better social policies and/or tax cuts). Scandanavian countries have successfully used this recipe to reduce the prison population and reduce crime at the same time. Other countries and several States in America are now following suit.

Getting positive not more punitive

TOP will reverse the changes made by the Bail Amendment Act 2013.  The Act assumes some people are guilty until proven innocent, making bail harder to get with the result that the remand prison population (people awaiting trial or sentencing) is now almost a third of the prison population.

The savings from lowering the remand population will be invested in parts of the criminal justice system that are known to reduce offending and are cheaper than prison:

  • Raise the Youth Court age to 20;
  • Sentence more people to alcohol and drug treatment - they go to prison only if they don’t complete their treatment; and
  • More Restorative Justice.

Many offenders end up in prison not because a judge believes that it is best for the community but because the court has no other good options. We need to invest in programmes that give judges other options and are focused on genuinely rehabilitating offenders rather than the dumb and lazy option of imprisonment.  

For example, the US justice system has had success with ‘Parenting with Love and Limits,’ a 20-hour program for parents of children with serious difficulties. Juvenile offenders take it rather than go to prison. For each dollar spent on it, there is an estimated benefit of $22.91.

New Zealand will not simply copy the US; we have our own innovative solutions, but they almost never get properly evaluated and expanded if they work.   

We will dial back legislation that strips the rights of prisoners and undermines their ability to reintegrate into society: return to prisoners the right to vote in elections; repeal the ‘three strikes’ regime; amend the Parole Act, and strengthen the Clean Slate Act.

Download the policy now

Policy chat on Facebook

Page last updated on 14-Aug 2017


The Government has said that it will build a $1 billion, 1800-bed prison to house the growing prison population. Does TOP support building this prison?


We do not have enough information on the condition of the prison estate to have a clear view on whether the new prison should be built. It may be better to build a new prison and retire older prisons. However, at this point we are not convinced. If we reversed the effects of the Bail Amendment Act 2013 as TOP proposes, that would largely make building the new prison unnecessary. We are also concerned that when it comes to prisons, supply creates its own demand. If there is a new 1800-bed prison, it will be filled.      

The Youth Court is already able to transfer a young person to the District Court if it judges that that is the more appropriate court for them. This aspect of the Youth Court remains in place under The Opportunities Party’s policy to raise the Youth Court age to 20.  

Regardless of the crime, it is usually better for the community if that young person goes before the Youth Court and is exposed to its more rehabilitative focus. If the Youth Courth can make a difference at that point in the person’s young life and disentangle them from the gangs, it will have a huge positive effect for the rest of their lives (and result in significant long-term savings to the community).

Conversely, if they go to prison they are far more likely to reoffend. A follow up study of almost 5000 offenders released from New Zealand prisons in 2002/03 found that within 5 

years, 88% of those under 20 years of age and 82% of those 20-24 years of age, had reoffended.[1]

[1] Nadesu, Arul. (2009) Reconviction patterns of released prisoners: A 60-months follow-up analysis. Department of Corrections.

The Opportunities Party is concerned with what appears to be the overuse of solitary confinment in New Zealand. There are some legitimate uses of solitary confinement, but there are few, and the evidence is that in New Zealand solitary confinment is greatly overused.


Doctor Sharon Shalev’s 2017 report, Thinking Outside The Box, was commissioned by the Human Rights Commission and carried out with UN funding. It looked at how seclusion is used in prisons, health and disability units, a youth justice residence, a children's care unit and police cells. Shalev found that overall, there is a high use of seclusion and restraint in New Zealand and an overrepresentation of ethnic minority groups, in particular Mäori, in seclusion and in prison segregation units. In prisons, women were also much more likely than men to be segregated, and for longer periods. New Zealand segregated prisoners over four times more often than England and Wales. This is especially concerning since that the use of segregation in England and Wales has itself been found to be high. 

Double-bunking is a consequence of a growing prison population. If the prison population was smaller, which is what The Opportunities Party’s policies aim to achieve, there would be no need for doublebunking. In general, the more humane the prison environment the better it is at rehabilitating prisoners and reducing reoffending. The Opportunities Party’s criminal justice approach will improve that.  

The New Zealand criminal justice system already “releases prisoners onto the streets”. Under The Opportunities Party’s policies there will be more money available to help ex-prisoners reintegrate into the community. The Parole Board, which manage prisoners on long-term sentences (more than two years) back into the community, will have more tools to do that.  


Like most western-style democracies, recorded crime rates in New Zealand started declining in the early 1990s. Before that, rising crime rates had been normal, along with a growing prison population. Why crime rates rise or fall is poorly understood. What we do know is that there is no relationship between rates of crime and imprisonment. The international evidence suggests that it is possible to lower prison populations and the crime rate at the same time. It has been done, for example, in the United States[1] and in the Netherlands.[2] The Opportunities Party knows of no reason why it can’t be done in New Zealand.   

[1] The PEW Charitable Trusts. (December 2016) National Imprisonment and Crime

Rates Continue to Fall: Crime dropped faster in 2015 in states with larger prison declines.

[2] Statistics Netherlands (CBS) Fewer and fewer Dutch affected by crime, unsafety feelings and neighbourhood nuisance.

The government does spend millions a year on rehabilitation and reintegration, but it is not enough, is not a large share of the justice sector budget and is often not well spent. We think New Zealand can do better by spending a significant share of what it would have spent on prison (which costs about $100,000 a year per occupied prison bed, not including significant capital expenditure) on rehabilitation, reintegration and finding creative solutions to offending. 

For example, we think that the Alcohol and Other Drug Treatement (AODT or ‘drug’) Court pilot at two sites in Auckland has shown its worth and should be rolled out more widely. Any District Court can run an AODT court process but practically it needs financial help from the government. The Opportunities Party would expand the number of AODT from two to seven over the next two years, using money saved from a smaller prison population.

No criminal justice system can credibly promise to protect us from all criminal violence, theft or dishonesty. However, The Opportunities Party’s criminal justice policies will make New Zealanders safer than they would have been.

First of all, we should remember that almost all prisoners will be released one day and that offenders who have done their time, are released every day. In our view, we are on the whole likely to be safer ifprison has prepared prisoners for life outside prison and the government invests in reintegrating them back into the community. At the moment so much money is spent on prisons that there is little left for these vital investments. As a result, within five years 

of being released from a New Zealand prison, 70% of people will have reoffended.[1]  Only if the prison population is reduced, and so its cost lessened, will the government be able to invest properly in rehabilitation and reintegration.


Secondly, experts believe that prison probably causes crime. So while it is an essential part of the criminal justice system, it is not the answer and should be a small part of our response to criminal offending.

[1] Nadesu, Arul. (2009) Reconviction patterns of released prisoners: A 60-months follow-up analysis. Department of Corrections.

The government does have a responsibility to detect and punish criminal wrongdoings, but it also has a responsibility for education and health for example, and it has limited money. It is proper that the government balances all of its fiscal responsibilities. Fiscal crises have been the impetus for reducing the prison population in many states of the USA.


In addition, it has been said that the best criminal policy is social policy, and The Opportunities Party wants to save money by putting fewer people in prison and spending more on good social policy, which will mean New Zealand will need fewer prisons.


Secondly, prison raises its own moral issues. In New Zealand, prison falls hardest on disadvantaged New Zealanders. If you are poor, need help with reading and writing and suffer from mental illness or drug addiction, you are much more likely to end up in prison.


Then there is the shameful fact that while only 15% of the general population, Maori are 51% of the prison population. Like Indigenous in Australia and  Canada and African Americans in the United States, Maori are massively overrepresented in prison.


Finally, most prisoners are parents and their imprisonment has a negative affect on their families and communities. In New Zealand, the children of prisoners are about five times more likely to go to prison than children with parents who will have never been in prison.[1] When large numbers of parent-aged adults cycle through stays in prison, extracted from their families and communities, then their families and communities are negatively affected in many ways, including damage to social networks and relationships and labour markets.

[1] Superu (June 2015) Improving outcomes for children with a parent in prison at www.superu.govt.nz/sites/default/files/What%20Works%20Children%20of%20Prisoners.pdf.

In fact, the reality is the opposite. The size of the prison population is almost entirely a result of how punitive the government decides to make the criminal justice system. The more punitive, the larger the prison population. Rather than the government having no choice, a large and growing prison population is almost entirely the result of the government’s policy choices. The Bail Amendment Act 2013 and ‘3 strikes’ legislation are good recent examples.