What is behind the fall in New Zealand’s prison population?

Dr James Mehigan1

1University Of Canterbury

New Zealand’s prison population is coming down. In 2017 the country exceeded 10,000 prisoners for the first time. Most recent figures show a steady decline from c10,250 in February 2020 to c8,650 in March 2021. This paper asks why this change has occurred? It coincides with the present government’s target of reducing the prison population by 30%, but it is unclear why these numbers are coming down. The paper will discuss the relationship between this drop and recorded crime rates, in so far as the data allows.

Notwithstanding these decreases New Zealand retains a much higher prisoner per capita rate than many of the countries against which it would compare itself (such as England, Australia, Canada or Ireland). The paper asks what can be learnt from these prison population reductions to ensure they are sustainable and perhaps extendable beyond a 30% reduction. It also asks why the Māori representation within the prison system remains consistent at around 50%. How can decarceration be used to reduce the proportion of Māori within the prison estate as part of a drop in prison numbers overall?


James is Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Canterbury where he teaches criminal law and criminology. He was formerly a lecturer in criminology at the Open University in the UK and a barrister specialising in criminal and human rights law at Garden Court Chambers in London. He is a New Zealand representative on the Committee of Management of the Australia and New Zealand Society of Criminology.


Dec 09 2021