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New, smaller prison a risky move

After months of delays, the Government has finally announced its plans around the dilapidated Waikeria Prison. But its goal of reforming the justice system could prove to be its most difficult task.

A scaled-down version of the planned mega-prison at Waikeria has been announced but will provide only a smattering of extra capacity once completed.

Instead of the potential 2000-bed expansion planned by the previous government, a 500-bed high-security facility will be built with half of the cells double-bunked.

In addition, a 100-bed mental health unit will also be constructed on the site.

The old Waikeria prison is in a dilapidated state and in desperate need of replacement.

The new plan will see the upper Waikeria prison, which has a capacity of 426, shut for good.

This means a net gain of just 174 beds when the new prison is completed in 2022, at a cost of $750 million.

Alongside Waikeria, an extra 600 beds in "kitset" cells were announced in the Budget adding to 376 already planned as part of an expanded modular cell build. These will be constructed around the country and are expected to be finished by the end of 2019.

Alternative ways to accommodate a further 400 prisoners, such as transitional housing, are also being explored.

Announcing the decision, Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis said the prison would be one of the country’s smallest and evidence suggested smaller prisons were better at rehabilitating offenders.

Slamming the previous plans as an “American-style mega prison", Davis said he wasn’t going to double-down on what he considered a broken system.

“Decades of rushed policy and reactive decisions have gotten us to this point today.

“First off - we need to find a way to deal with the numbers of people currently coming through the prison gates,” he said.

Those numbers have risen rapidly in the past decade.

There are now 10,580 people behind bars, up from around 8000 in 2008.  Many are on remand, with the number of remand prisoners jumping following changes to bail laws.

By 2021, the population is expected to grow by almost 3000.

The most difficult task?

Reducing homelessness, cleaning up our waterways and the huge KiwiBuild project are all difficult projects.

But getting public buy-in, or a ‘social licence’ as it’s known, for major justice changes could prove even tougher.

Some commentators have suggested that New Zealand is better placed than ever to have a mature conversation about reform in the area, but that will be sorely tested when the next horrific crime dominates headlines.

Being seen as soft on crime can also make a politician weak at the knees and an easy target for the Opposition.

National have steadily attacked the Government about its plans in the area and followed up the Waikeria announcement by arguing that 98 percent of prisoners were locked up for serious offences.

The party’s Justice spokesman, Mark Mitchell, said rehabilitation was vitally important but shouldn’t come at the expense of public safety.

“It’s really apparent that what’s starting to happen here is this Government is becoming obsessed with prisoners and forgetting about the safety of the community and victims," Mitchell said.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her Justice Minister Andrew Little have stood firm on her Government’s commitment to a different approach, but will be hoping they can gain the support needed to push through the major legislative changes needed to reverse the prison population.

The decision to effectively stand still capacity wise with a smaller build at Waikeria is a risky move.

If Labour is unable to secure the support of its coalition partner New Zealand First for its package of justice reforms then it could find itself with no choice but to build additional prisons.

Those reforms are the lynchpin of its promise to reduce the prison population by 30 per cent in 15 years.

If nothing changes, then the surging prison population will soon catch up to the stop-gap capacity additions and leave the Government open to an avalanche of criticism.

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