All the talk this week has been about drug testing loopholes and the lacklustre application of the law when it comes to drug and alcohol (D&A) testing of parolees and offenders under community sentences.
I agree that it is indeed important that these people are held accountable to their release conditions. However, I also think that such a narrow view of the issue shifts focus away from far bigger failings within the corrections system. These failures, or missed opportunities, however you want to view it, are the large cracks (chasms) in the system which don’t help offenders at all with their D&A issues. Hang on a minute, did I just say “help offenders”? Yes I did, but before you put me in the ‘leftie’ box and click away, let me explain. Firstly, when I say help I don’t mean release from prison or give a lesser sentence than that which is fair and just (I do work at SST advocating for justice and victims rights after all). What I intend is that we should be doing the most we can to make sure offenders are given the best chance possible to address their D&A problems, both in and out of prison. If these people can got off the booze and drugs, which I think is totally possible, we ALL benefit.
Focusing solely on D&A testing neglects the elephant and gorilla of problems that need to be addressed, which currently isn’t happening. To reduce D&A dependency and lower D&A related crime requires a three pronged approach. These are namely:
- D&A assessment (does the offender have a problem, what is the scale?)
- D&A treatment (in-prison and community programmes, mandatory requirements)
- D&A testing
Now if you’re a naive kiwi like myself you’d think these things happen already. However, according to Roger Brooking (alcohol & drug counselor who works with offenders), D&A assessment and treatment options for offenders is virtually non-existent in New Zealand. I’m all for justice and punishment, but not addressing an offenders’ D&A issues when we have the chance is a grave mistake. One we all end up paying for with higher rates of recidivism.
The book, Flying Blind by Roger Brooking, couldn’t be more timely. It highlights exactly how weak the corrections department is at tackling the D&A issues of offenders. This directly affects us because these people are released back into the community and have a much higher chance of reoffending. The main premise of the book is that without assessing the scale of the problem we are virtually ‘flying blind’ when it comes to dealing with D&A related crime.
While this book makes some good points, it doesn’t totally nail everything. For the remainder of this section I’ll explain the best bits. Following that I’ll deal with the parts I disagree with.
A lot of the blame predictably falls onto government. The amount of crime predicated due to drug and alcohol abuse is staggering, especially violent crime. The lack of assessment and treatment programmes in the corrections department is a major problem. This includes both in-prison programmes as well as community based programmes.
Two well-known examples of how the system failed are Graeme Burton and William Bell. Burton’s drug addiction was not addressed even though he had six psychiatric reports recommending D&A treatment. These never happened. William Bell breached his release conditions and should have been sent back to prison, but wasn’t. Also, while he was in prison he received no treatment for his alcohol and drug abuse problems.
In-prison D&A programmes are more expensive and less effective than community based programmes, however they still do provide a positive return on investment and should be implemented. In the past the government focused on cognitive skills programmes but this was a major failure and waste of money. Trying to teach life skills to someone without first addressing their D&A issues was pushing s*** up a hill.
Community based programmes are the most cost effective and provide the best outcomes. However, a lack of programmes and the fact that offenders aren’t made to attend any treatment after release or while on parole is ludicrous. The absence of any after care facilities such as half-way houses for released inmates is also a problem. The Canadians are given as a good example of such a system of reintegration. Such measures are not out of the range of possibility financially in New Zealand. Rather than just turning these people loose, I’d like to know we are doing everything possible to make sure they have the best chance of going straight.
When it comes to treatment, it has been shown that early prevention delivers the most bang for your buck. Scandinavian countries are used extensively as examples because they deliver better outcomes and are the most effective at lowering recidivism. Our Corrections Department is currently implementing a Drug and Alcohol Interventions Programme. It is yet to be seen what this actually consists of. Additionally, it is essential that whatever is offered is easily accessible for inmates as well as offenders on remand and shorter sentences.
All of this inevitably comes down to funding, which is obviously severely lacking. However, it’s not necessarily that the money isn’t there. It’s more of the usual stagnant paralysis of a government waiting for more “evidence”. The “let’s wait and see if it works over there” strategy has left New Zealand high and dry on so many issues; house prices, sugar tax, sex offender register, the list goes on…. Sitting back and waiting until things are 100% proven elsewhere means New Zealand is decades behind on a lot of important issues.
Rehabilitation ≠ Justice
One of the main bugs for me in the book was the way the terms rehabilitation and justice were used interchangeably. The term ‘therapeutic jurisprudence’ is used in Brooking’s book to try and blur the lines between rehabilitation and administering justice. However, these components should always be dealt with separately. Let me be clear, rehabilitation is NOT a part of administering justice.
An example of the writer using this strategy is by continually denigrating our ‘justice system’ as failing because of the lack of rehabilitation offered in prisons. While it is true that the lack of rehab is a problem, trying to say that prison is the problem is shifting the blame (more on prison bashing below).
Justice and protection for society and citizens are vital societal constructs. The influence of alcohol and drugs is no excuse for criminal activity. Offenders and misguided liberals may not like the idea of going to prison, however rehab and treatment is not an acceptable substitute. If you do something wrong you get punished. Rehabilitation and treatment for offenders is NOT a form of punishment and certainly no replacement for prison to provide justice for victims and society.
Brooking describes victims and groups such as SST as a “vengeful” lynch mob, but all we’ve ever asked for is more sensible sentencing. Revenge implies violence and malice. We’ve never gone down that road. All we really want is to see punishments administered that are fair and just in the eyes of society.
Mr. Brooking, what are your alternatives for administering justice in society apart from prison?
Prison Bashing (Again!?)
Another major issue in the book is the prison bashing! I’ve talked about this before. In terms of recidivism I agree that prison is not as effective at deterring offenders as actually helping them with their D&A issues.
Brooking talks about the need to reduce the prison population as a national goal. However, the real goal should be to lower the crime rate. The prison population is merely a consequence, the real problem is the amount of crimes committed. I mean if the goal was really to lower the prison population we could achieve this easily by releasing criminals early on parole or not applying custodial sentences where required… Hang on a minute, this is actually happening anyway. The problem is obviously exacerbated through the missed opportunity to treat these offender while they are in custody. Let’s stop talking about prison population. The goal should be to lower the crime rate. This is what we all want anyway.