Youth criminal unit closure plain stupid

by Jake Quinn

The decision to cut the funding to a massively successful youth justice facility in Hamilton, Te Hurihanga, just weeks after announcing support for a three strikes sentencing policy is the kind of decision we would hope not to see but may come to expect from the supposedly ‘centrist’ National-led government.  What’s more, that the Māori Party can stay in support of this government after such action is a blatant insult to their supporters.

The Justice Minister, Simon Power, on Monday trotted out dodgy figures to soften the landing for this funding cut announcement.  He said the programme cost over $600,000 per person, where really it was closer to a quarter of that sum.  A closer look showed that he chose to divide the total spend on the project, buildings included (a one-off cost), by the amount of people who’ve graduated, thus ignoring the many more youths still in the program or approaching completion.

The real figure (still including a stack of costs for establishing the thing, which are not ongoing) is closer to $170,000 per youth. What a difference the political spin makes.  One figure makes the thing sound pretty damn expensive, the other quite reasonable.  You see, prison costs the taxpayer about $100,000 per person per year, and that doesn’t even begin to factor in the costs of crime to victims, the Courts and other social service providers like the Police.

These youths, none of which have re-offended since graduating the program, had each recorded dozens of offences before entering it.  They were becoming hardened criminals.  But not since.  This is simply an astounding result, which we should be celebrating by rolling out this program all over New Zealand.  So why on earth cut it, like National just has?  Was it because it was a success story of the last government’s slightly more progressive approach to corrections and justice policy?

Or was it because Minister Collins needed a few spare extra dollars for the over priced PR exercise that is shipping container prison cells, which aren’t even cheaper than building normal rooms – they just look tougher on crime?  Or was it that Mr Power forgot that Māori make up over half of the prison population (and that three-quarters of those have their first prison sentence before their 20th birthday) and that targeted programs that actually work for Māori youth offenders are probably the single best thing the country could be doing to reduce crime?

That the decision to cut this proven-to-work youth criminal intervention program was made by a Justice Minister who we know has at least half a brain, is simply depressing.  That it came a few weeks after a three-strikes policy was announced to placate the ACT party, which will probably have the unintended consequence of leading to more rapes and murders (in prison) because without the possibility or parole life-timers will have absolutely nothing to lose, is depressing.

That we are not in a position yet, as a society, to see that the fence at the top of the cliff is preferable to the ambulance (or more fittingly, the howling mob) at the bottom, is depressing.  We can do better.