Warning extra cops could push prisons over the brink

The Government has received a blunt warning from Treasury over the impact the promised 1800 extra police officers is likely to have on already overcrowded prisons.

The Labour-New Zealand First coalition agreement says the Government will strive towards delivering 1800 new police officers in three years – a promise repeatedly described as “ambitious” given police recruitment rates and high attrition.

Police Minister Stuart Nash is adamant the extra police will not increase the number of people going to prison, saying the advice from police is the prevention-first model would result in either no increase, or a reduction in the prison population.

But other agencies, including Corrections and Justice, said they expected the 1800 extra police to add as many as 900 people to the country’s prisons, which are already at risk of being over-capacity.

A newly released document relating to Nash’s Budget bid for 1800 extra officers warns there is no room for error in judgment, with the prison system almost at capacity.

The aide memoire from Treasury to Finance Minister Grant Robertson and Associate Finance Minister David Clark advised a “cautious approach”, given the potential impacts on the prison population.

“There is considerable uncertainty and disagreement within the sector about the impact that additional police would have,” the memo said.

“Regardless of the precise impacts, given the current state of the prison network, we recommend a cautious approach as there appears to be no remaining resilience in the network for higher than expected impacts.”

The prison population exceeded 10,000 for the first time in 2016, and has continued to grow. In May, the population surpassed 10,600.

In March, when the Budget bids were considered by Treasury, the prison network was at 99 percent capacity.

In order to make space, inmates have been increasingly double-bunked, and moved between prisons.

The memo said the flow-on costs of the extra police officers was uncertain, but were likely to “exacerbate risks to an already strained prison network”.

According to Justice projections the prison network is expected to be operating close to full capacity until at least 2021, when the 600-bed Waikeria development comes into service.

“Over this period Corrections faces a significant risk of insufficient capacity should demand rise faster than expected, or should an unexpected event occur,” Treasury said.

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis has set a target of reducing the prison population by 30 per cent in 15 years, and Justice Minister Andrew Little is working on widespread justice reforms in order to achieve the goal.

Meanwhile, Corrections and the Ministry of Justice said they expected Nash’s increase in police staff to lead to further increases in the ballooning prison muster. Corrections expected a further 600 to 900 people will be locked up as a result of the extra police officers, while Justice estimated the impact to be about 750 additional prisoners.

Police Minister Stuart Nash says he accepts the view from police that extra officers may actually result in fewer prisoners. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Police had an opposing view, saying the additional resources going into organised crime were likely to result in more prosecutions and sentences for serious crimes, which should disrupt the drug market and prevent a significant number of drug-related crimes downstream.

Justice acknowledged an offsetting reduction in drug-related crime was possible, but said there was no good evidence on what the size of that offset would be.

When asked about the conflicting advice from officials in the past, Nash has said he received a range of advice from different sources and it was up to him to decide which advice to act on. In this case, he preferred to take the advice of police.

On Thursday, a spokeswoman for Nash said there were competing views on the impact of extra police on the prison population and police advised some of the forecasts did not reflect the prevention-focused policing model.

The memo also warned of flow-on cost pressures on the court system, social services, the Independent Police Conduct Authority and the Crown Law Office.

Three years not enough

Treasury also recommended phasing in the extra officers over five years, rather than three.

“Implementation over a three-year period is likely to be challenging.”

In order to add 1800 extra police in three years, recruitment would need to increase by almost 2.5 times the usual annual intake, which was currently about 400.

Phasing in over four or five years would reduce the risk of being unable to meet the recruitment goal.

In Budget 2018, Nash received $298.8 million in new operating funding, and $17.8m capital for the police over the next four years. In addition, $159.7m of new funding is provided in 2022.

While the funding was out to 2022, Nash said he still planned to deliver on the promise by 2020, and any failure to do so would not be because of a lack of funding.

His spokeswoman said Nash described Budget 2018 as a “down payment” and noted he would be seeking further funds in Budget 2019.

As of last week 668 new officers had been deployed since the Government took office and more than 300 additional recruits were currently in training.

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