The number of prisoners behind bars in New Zealand is expected to be the highest ever within weeks, Corrections Minister Judith Collins says.This will, of course, get an awful lot higher, especially with the number of unemployed sky rocketing. The recession - and, more importantly, the government's refusal to actually do anything constructive about it - will mean all the bad numbers go up. Prison population, drug use, domestic violence, dead children ... Worse, not only will the numbers get high but they will stay high, as the social wreckage continues to ruin lives for years or even decades afterwards.
At Monday unlock this week, there were 8434 people in prisons or police stations - just 23 below the previous peak of 8457 prisoners on 17 September 2007.
The strong growth in the prison population began in 2003 when the prison population stood at less than 6000. It is forecast to rise to around 10,700 by 2016. (1)
The reason that numbers have been increasing steadily is the consequence of the 'reforms' of the 80s and 90s, and the failure of the last government to effectively counter the social ruin left by those two decades social experimentation. The consequences aren't apparent immediately, but become clear over the coursr of a generation. The children of parents who have succumbed to alcohol, drugs, ennui and desapir don't show up in the prison system immediately, but they are now. The children who grew up in the shattered families and dying towns, without hope, are now old enough to be locked up.
And now we're repeating the mistakes. Long after John Key has become just a political byword for inaction and ineffectiveness, people will still be living with the consequences of his government's ideological and pig-headed refusal to take action to mitigate the effects of the recession.
The fact that the prison population has been trending upwards since 2003 raises a less important, but still interesting issue - how on Earth did Labour manage to let itself be so outflanked on law and order? I despise simplistic rhetoric on crime, and the obsession with bums in cells of the rightwing punitarian demagogues, but the empirical data was there, to show that Labour was actualy quite psychotically, probably stupidly, tough on crime. Yet they allowed themselves to be painted as limp wristed, PC idiots intent on reforming P addled triple killers with crochet classes.
Of course, Labour couldn't really dust off the old Bristish Labour party slogan about being "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.' Because they weren't very effective - that they left the prison population higher than it was when they came into government, after almost a decade in power, is evidence of that damning failure.
"Tough on crime, pretty ineffective on the causes of crime because we're too scared of being portrayed as limp wristed wets on this issue, and too gormless to get our message across effectively, and too generally known to be dishonest to be believed when we do make the effort," might be about right.
1 - "Prisoner numbers set to be highest ever," press release by Corrections Minister Judith Collins, 14th of July, 2009. (http://www.beehive.govt.nz/release/prisoner+numbers+set+be+highest+ever)