Changes to NZ’s parole laws to improve rehabilitation could lead to even longer prison times

ACT’s recently proposed amendment to parole legislation fits with the party’s “restoring law and order and personal responsibility” platform enshrined in last year’s coalition agreement. But the rule changes could cause more harm than good.

If passed into law, the Parole (Mandatory Completion of Rehabilitative Programmes) Amendment Bill would amend the Parole Act 2002. The changes would mean someone in prison could not get parole without completing a rehabilitative programme chosen for them by their case manager.

Introducing the bill to parliament, ACT MP Todd Stephenson said its goal was to “provide hope for those incarcerated to rehabilitate themselves and actually reintegrate back into society”.

By making rehabilitation programme completion compulsory to be eligible for parole, the hope is people in prison will be incentivised to finish the programmes. Stephenson said introducing compulsory completion will have a positive impact on Aotearoa New Zealand’s high rates of recidivism and reincarceration.

It’s true, recidivism rates in Aotearoa New Zealand are extremely high. But it’s also clear there are deeper problems with the rehabilitation system that legislation alone won’t solve.

Personal motivation is not enough

The Parole Board already considers completion (or not) of rehab programmes when assessing parole eligibility.

But the reasons for people not completing such programmes go far deeper than a lack of personal motivation. Instead, there are systemic causes within the justice system.

Ara Poutama Aotearoa-Department of Corrections faces endemic operational and capacity issues.

Read more: Prison is expensive – worth remembering when we oppose parole

The legislative amendment fails to recognise resourcing and access issues relating to prison rehab programmes, let alone the relatively low success rates of these programmes in preventing reoffending generally.

The situation is likely to get worse. The government has asked all departments, including Corrections, to cut spending by 6.5%. These cuts come at a time that Corrections has been struggling to recruit and retain staff.

A near impossible hurdle

The lack of adequate funding for rehab programmes will likely lead to some people being unable to get parole.

Concerns over these delays were already being raised by formerly incarcerated men who participated in a 2021 study.

One of the participants reported waiting eight years before being able to enter his first rehabilitation programme. Another of his programmes was set to start after his parole hearing, despite not being able to get parole without completing the programme.

Read more: Prison turns life upside down – giving low-risk prisoners longer to prepare for their sentences would benefit everyone

In some cases, the programmes inmates were encouraged to do were not even available in the prisons they were housed in.

The men in our study were not failing to complete programmes because they did not want to do them or lacked incentive. They were failing to complete programmes because of Corrections’ resourcing issues.

As one explained:

If you’re trying to change someone, change … my opinion is change it from the beginning. Don’t wait … By the time I became eligible for these programmes it was too late. I’d clocked up charges. I’d clocked up assault charges.

I learnt nothing … I failed the programme twice … I didn’t have tools to deal with what I, what I accumulated over the years was embedded in me. I had no tools to try and help myself get out of it until later. I couldn’t comprehend what the programme was trying to teach me.

Parole Board chair Sir Ron Young and Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier have both openly criticised Corrections’ inability to support people onto rehabilitation programmes in a timely manner.

Time to pause the ammendment

Finally, Māori are disproportionately represented in the prison population and are already less likely to complete rehabilitation programmes.

There is a risk that ACT’s amendment will have a disproportionately negative impact on Māori communities and do little to change already dire prison statistics.

The bill has now been referred to the Justice Committee and is open for public submissions.

The government should push pause on this amendment, at least until it can resolve Corrections’ resourcing issues and provide sufficient access to rehabilitative programmes in prisons.

Laura Johnstone is a member of People Against Prisons Aotearoa and a Board Member of Just Speak.