Justice

Remand population hits all-time high

Prisons remain under pressure as prison numbers refuse to budge and remand population hits an all-time high. Laura Walters reports.

The remand prisoner population has hit an all-time high this year, as the Government continues to work towards its goal of reducing the prison population by 30 percent in 15 years.

While the sentenced population has reduced by about 1100 since the Government took office in late 2017, the remand population has increased by about 500. The remand population refers to prisoners who are yet to be sentenced.

At the end of July, the total prison population was 9893, with 3505 remand prisoners - more than a third of the total population.

Minister of Corrections Kelvin Davis pulled the population pressure on prisons back from the brink, after the total population hit an all-time high last year of more than 10,800.

The High Impact Innovation Programme (HIIP), which focuses on finding inefficiencies and preventing delays, helped pull numbers down to a population sitting consistently just below 10,000.

There was also a fall in short-term prison sentences and a rise in non-custodial – or community – sentences. 

And the Ministry of Justice amended its prison population projections to reflect the changing trends.

However, it noted the recent reduction was not sustainable.

Remand on the rise

Since the initial declines, the total population has plateaued, thanks in part to the growing remand population.

This is partly due to law changes passed in 2013 following the murder of Christie Marceau - her killer Akshay Anand Chand was on bail at the time of her murder.

The change in family violence laws last year also added to the remand population, and Corrections’ Probation Services has also been slow in preparing reports needed for people to be granted bail.

But the bulk of the blame rests with the court system.

The number of court events, and the time between them has been growing.

“It means that we probably are remanding in custody more than necessary.”

The average number of events has increased from four in 2015 to five in mid-2019.

It wasn’t unusual for people to go through seven court events before sentencing.

The time between events had crept up to an average of more than 30 days, and the average time in custody has gone from a bit over 64 days five years ago, to more than 74 days.

Ministry of Justice projections show the average time in custodial remand was expected to rise to 85 days in 2028.

Mike Williams - head of penal reform group the Howard League – has also spoken about a man in a Northland prison who spent more than 800 days on remand.

A significant number of those prisoners were then released on time served, and Justice Minister Andrew Little said about 40 percent of prisoners held in remand were not given a custodial sentence.

“It means that we probably are remanding in custody more than necessary.”

The sources of the delays were complex, but largely related to staffing and administration.

Police prosecutors were under pressure, and sometimes not prepared when the date came around. The same was true for defence and legal aid lawyers.

There were not enough judges to deal with the volumes.

Meanwhile, Little said lawyers were “getting back to old habits”, and finding ways around the Criminal Procedure Act.

This meant the delay of court events, and changes of dates, were made to suit representatives, rather than the person at the middle of the case.

Work was under way to address these issues, he said.

The Budget included 10 additional district court judges, who were being recruited. Budget 2018 funded two additional youth court judges.

Little was also putting together a bid for a new courts IT system.

He hoped it would also allow victims and alleged offenders to access information about the progress of their case, saying this transparency should put pressure on those in power to keep things moving.

Justice delayed is justice denied

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis said he was not happy with the state of the prison population, particularly the remand rise.

“It’s the old saying: justice delayed is justice denied. It’s not good for victims to have to wait for their day in court; it’s not good for alleged offenders to have to wait.”

Those on remand also had limited access to education programmes, and they were unable to take part in official rehabilitation programmes.

Davis said he would continue to find ways to “clear the arteries”, and Corrections’ new five-year strategy, Hōkai Rangi, would help guide that response.

The Howard League’s Mike Williams reiterated Davis’ sentiments, saying it was not fair, or just, to keep people waiting on remand for extended periods.

In order to make a significant difference to the population, the Government needed to change sentencing and bail laws, he said – something it had avoided so far.

In the meantime, more could be done to offer literacy, driving, and rehabilitation programmes to those on remand. He also advocated for prisoners being granted a reduced sentence in exchange for gaining skills or qualifications – a policy previously put forward by both ACT and National.

Population and cost pressures

While there is no longer frenzied talk of stretchers in prison hallways, the pressure on the prison system remains.

This year’s Budget included more money to cater to population pressures, safely managing offenders in the community, and costs associated with building new prisons and retiring unfit units.

In Budget documents, Treasury described the two core “oversubscribed” bids relating to the size and quality of the prison network, and for the increased number of community-based offenders as “cost pressure bids”.

The ministry forecasts also warned of the continued pressure on the population in lieu of any significant reforms.

Kelvin Davis (left), Stuart Nash and Andrew Little are working to reform the justice sector. In the meantime, the prison population is refusing to budge. Photo: Sam Sachdeva

Davis said there wasn’t a minister in any Government who did not want more money, but he was comfortable with the current capacity within the prison system to safely deal with the population, and any sudden spikes.

National Party corrections spokesman David Bennett said the Government would not meet its ultimate goal of 30 percent reduction in 15 years without significant legislative reforms.

But that was not what the public wanted.

There had been much speculation over whether New Zealand First was the barrier to changing sentencing and bail laws, but Bennett said Little’s avoidance of these law changes was guided by public sentiment.

The final report from the Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Panel – Te Uepū has gone to the minister, and would guide reforms.

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