Our prisons are bursting, and yet our communities don’t feel any safer. With over 7,700 inmates in our prisons, New Zealand has one of the highest imprisonment rates in the western world. Inmate numbers have risen a staggering 70 percent in the last 10 years. Around 80 percent of prisoners are serving their second or more prison term. Something is wrong with our current penal system – it is not working.
The Catholic agency for Justice, Peace and Development, Caritas, and the New Zealand Catholic Bishops, would like to see more discussion and fresh thinking on the crime and punishment debate, and are supporting a three-year project called ‘Rethinking Crime and Punishment’ which was launched at Parliament on 26 October.
The project to be coordinated by Prison Fellowship and the Salvation Army aims to increase and spread knowledge among the public about the most productive use of prison and the effectiveness of alternative punishments such as restorative justice and community penalties. It will also seek out fresh policy ideas about crime and punishment, and, through structured debate, influence how the New Zealand public thinks about issues such as alternatives to prison, and community sentences.
The Catholic Church and community have a long established commitment to prisoners and victims of crime. The church provides a comprehensive prison chaplaincy – there are 21 chaplains, covering every prison in New Zealand. The Catholic Church provides 38 percent of the full-time equivalent prison chaplains. Other groups, including Catholic Social Services, provide counselling and support to a range of people in the community who need it, including victims of crime.
The director of Caritas, Michael Smith, has been invited on to the project’s reference group to provide a Catholic voice and conduit for the Catholic perspective. Other members include Sir Paul Reeves, Judge Stan Thorburn, social commentator, Celia Lashlie, and Salvation Army Commissioner Garth McKenzie.
Michael Smith says, ‘This project provides a great opportunity for fresh debate and thinking on our criminal justice and penal system. I am hopeful that this project will ultimately lead to safer communities. I also hope it will lead to better opportunities for offenders to face up to their crimes, more appropriate sentencing and then effective rehabilitation for prisoners, and last but not least, a country where the needs and concerns of victims of crime are better addressed.’
The New Zealand Catholic Bishops have released a statement in support of the project. For more information on the project please visit www.rethinking.org.nz or www.caritas.org.nz