Slammer not the answer, say NZ bishops

With New Zealand incarceration rates second only to those of the US, what is needed is a new approach, not new prisons for the country's growing prison population, New Zealand's bishops have said.

"New Zealand has the dubious distinction of having the second highest rate of imprisonment among developed countries," the bishops say in a statement released as part of a major "crime and punishment" debate under way in the Pacific nation.

"Our rates of incarceration are second only to the United States, where some states reputedly spend more on incarceration than education," the bishops say.

"The prison population in New Zealand continues to reach record new records, and presently has an imprisonment ratio of 189.7 per 100,000 people, which far exceeds that of other OECD countries outside the United States."

This has taken place at a time when reported crime, across all categories, is the lowest since 1983, the bishops statement says.

"Yet, our imprisonment rate since then has more than doubled, and we continue to build more prisons.

"Despite this, most New Zealanders do not feel safer - in fact people fear violent crime more than ever before. Victims of crimes continue to feel unsupported and to have little power or voice in a criminal system aimed at punishment."

But little is being done within the prison system to address the problems, the bishops fear.

They said the prisons lacked support services and opportunities for rehabilitation.

The bishops appeal for "a more enlightened approach to the problem of crime, with emphasis on cause and prevention, rather than just apprehension and imprisonment".

Citing research that shows that a retributive and punitive attitude towards offenders has the opposite effect to solving crime or reducing re-offending, the bishops emphasise that the purpose of punishment is rehabilitation.

"Prisons must be places where a person is sent as punishment, but always for the purpose of rehabilitation into society. The demand for retribution has a dehumanising and soul destroying effect on offenders," the bishops believe.

In echoes of the situation in Australia, the New Zealand bishops also call for a re-examination of the country's treatment asylum seekers "who are routinely imprisoned while awaiting the outcome of their processes".

These prisoners "should be freed immediately, with appropriate conditions, if they pose no direct threat to national security," the bishops conclude.

Catholic bishops support Crime and Punishment debate (Media Release, Catholic Communications, 29/10/06)

Catholic bishops support Crime and Punishment debate (NZ Catholic, 1/11/06)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Catholic Church in New Zealand
Attitudes to Crime and Punishment: A New Zealand Study

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2 Nov 2006