Russell Marshall's Column


By Russell Marshall
May 2010
Russell Marshall

New Zealand has one of the highest imprisonment rates in the world. Among developed countries only the United States has a high incarceration rate than we do.

The very high Maori imprisonment rate in particular should be a large blemish on our social conscience.

However, polls and focus groups tell political parties that there is a public desire for ever more tough sentencing, and coverage of crime in its often lurid and gory details sells papers and attracts TV viewers. Garth McVicar of the Sensible Sentencing Trust in particular has capitalised well on the public sentiment for greater toughness, and many victims and their families have also benefited from the work that SST and McVicar have done on their behalf.

Responding to this environment over recent years our two major political parties have sought to outdo each other in being ‘tough on crime’.

Last year Chief Justice Sian Elias gave the annual Shirley Smith lecture. Closing her address, she said ‘We need to look at direct tools to manage the prison population if overcrowding is not to cause significant safety and human rights issues….the alternatives and the costs of overcrowding need to be weighed.

‘If we are not prepared to relax the pressures to contain risk in the discretionary decisions as to bail and parole, then the only other immediate options may be to confront the length of sentences directly. If not, we will have to keep building prisons and diverting resources into incapacitation, a strategy that Shirley Smith had no doubt would not work.’

The official reaction from both the Prime Minister and the Minister of Justice to the Chief Justice’s speech was prompt and critical. A large amount of press commentary – for and against – followed, and the Sensible Sentencing Trust called on the Chief Justice to resign.

We have surely gone too far in locking up so many people for so long, and it is time for some organised pushback on this issue.

Former police officer and current Families Commissioner Kim Workman has fought a long and sometimes lonely battle making a case along the lines advocated by the Chief Justice, in recent years through his Rethinking Crime and Punishment features.

Recently a new group, registered as the Robson Hanan Trust, has been set up to support and further promote those efforts.  The Trust is about to seek public support. In the meantime, some further information is available at

Russell Marshall is the founding chair of the Robson Hanan Trust

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