Opportunity cost: what could you do with $1b?

I love the idea of locking up scumbags and not letting them out until they have gotten it through their thick skulls that the rest of society expects them to grow up. ? But $1b is a lot of money.

Crime does not pay, as the old adage goes.

That may or may not be true, but what is absolutely without question is that crime costs. And the costs aren’t just incurred by victims of crime but by each and every one of us.

It was announced this week that the Government has approved plans to increase the country’s prison capacity by 1800 beds and the cost of this is expected to be about $1 billion.

And that’s only the cost of this particular expansion programme.

According to Corrections Minister Judith Collins, the number of criminals needing to be incarcerated has increased faster than the number crunchers projected.

There was a glimmer of hope in the press release: there was talk of Corrections increasing rehabilitation, providing education and special training, and addressing violent and sexual offending through special treatment units.

But there were no specifics and no indication of how much money would go on these programmes. And there appears to be much merit in these initiatives.

In Northland, Ngawha prison won an Arts Access Award this year for providing theatre, music, creative writing, painting and carving courses and access to qualifications through NZQA.

Ngawha is staging an annual exhibition and last year $7000 was raised from the sale of the artworks and the money donated to Women’s Refuge.

And in June of this year, a solo mum and her three kids took possession of a house built by prisoners at Ngawha. It was the third house to be built by the prisoners, working in a three-year partnership with Habitat for Humanity.

So not only do three families now have a home, but the prisoners who worked on the houses were well on their way towards their Level 3 Certificate in Building Construction.

Habitat for Humanity and Corrections are now working on further collaboration.

However, you can paint enough canvases to stuff the Louvre but ultimately, people need meaningful employment, a decent income and a belief that they can provide for their families before the crime rate comes down.

The Government got a bloody nose in the 2015 byelection, when Winston Peters cruised to victory on a wave of dissatisfaction from the Northland electorate over the way the region had been neglected.

This year, Minister for Everything Steven Joyce announced the Te Tai Tokerau Northland Economic Action Plan as part of the government’s regional growth plan.

He announced 58 tangible action plans including improved digital coverage, a lift in the level of student qualifications, reducing unemployment especially among youth and Maori and an improved transport network.

Should the plan prove to be more than well-meaning ideas and lofty ambitions, these initiatives will do far more to reduce crime than the threat of being locked up and having the key thrown away.

Spending a billion dollars on prisons seems almost criminal.


These criminals also generate social costs in other ways. ?By getting in on the ground floor, those costs won’t roll up as they are now.

But yeah. ? $1b pays for a lot of health and a lot of teaching.

Getting to the point where we need fewer police and smaller prisons is certainly a better goal. ? In the mean time however, we need these idiots off our streets.

It’s not an either/or situation. ?It’s the cost of the situation we have to deal with right now.


– Kerry McIvor, NZ Herald