Correcting Corrections' rampant growth

Dunedin is important to John Key and his chief science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman. Half of Sir Peter’s 10-strong working group aiming to inject scientific evidence into a crucial aspect of social policy are Otago University professors, three based in Dunedin.

This group, if taken seriously by ministers, could turn out to be much more valuable to social cohesion and economic health than the benefit-trimming Welfare Working Group.

One minister who could profit from it is Bill English: last week he told an Auckland business group that Corrections is the government’s “fastest growing portfolio” and would in two or three years be its biggest department.

That is a forecast of failure. National ministers trumpet their toughness on criminals and determination to lock more of them up for longer. But behind that bluster they don’t know what to do to stop the inflow.

Simon Power has yet to produce any significant policy on the “drivers of crime”, on which he called a conference in April 2009.

Sir Peter’s group could help Power — if he listens and if English pays a rather big bill. So far English prefers forking out for new prisons and more guards to investing in preventive measures.

The group is co-chaired by Professor Harlene Hayne and includes academics specialising in psychology, paediatrics, families, children and adolescents and education. An important resource is the internationally renowned and mined near-four-decade study of a cohort of people born in Dunedin, headed by Professor Richie Poulton.

Sir Peter himself is a world-leading researcher in epigenetics (the study of non-genetic factors which cause genes to behave differently) and into factors influencing the mental health, health and development from pre-birth to adulthood.

The interim report identifies a wide range of influences which cause young people to develop mental illness, go off the rails or commit suicide. Among the factors are rapidly changing and more complex social networks and social changes, including widespread divorce, which have interrupted the intergenerational transfer of “folk-knowledge” underpinning parenting and which overload “immature brains”.

Add to this an “interactive accumulation of adverse social, family, personal and biological factors” which “create or reinforce cycles of intergenerational disadvantage” and 10-20 per cent of young people are “at risk”. The list of factors is long, starting with a bad experience before birth and in early life (abuse, neglect and family violence, often coupled with poverty), parenting factors (many parents have multiple disadvantages), discrimination, school experiences, dysfunctional communities and peer pressure.

And what is done about that? The report says “three-quarters of young people with depression get no treatment” and “there is a continuing deficit in … high-quality mental health services for adolescents and their families”. Around 10 per cent “experience serious difficulties with the use of alcohol and illicit drugs” which damage the brain. “A quarter of maltreated children become initiators of abuse”.

This is not only unfair to the children and adolescents who are damaged or lost. It is also bad economics.

That is because these factors will be bequeathed to the next generation. Bill English’s successors will be building more prisons and hiring more guards and pounding their chests with a befuddled pride in their battle against social mayhem.

The group has identified a range of programmes which have been found to be effective here or overseas and could be adopted or expanded or which it thinks deserve more investigation. And it has identified a range of avenues for more research — for example, into social and other factors which affect pupils’ learning capability.

Some are relatively inexpensive but under-resourced. Others “will require substantial investments of both time and money”. Sir Peter aims to report more fully by December with recommendations.

There are two dimensions to this work which mark it out as different from the usual way these investigations are done.

One is that it attempts to realise an aim Sir Peter brought to his role with Key: to inject more science into policymaking. Politicians are notoriously dumb at science and prefer simple “facts” or just prejudices. His group is made up of the sort of people who insist on international peer review. The aim is to produce a “fully referenced and justified report describing scientific foundations” for policy.

The second dimension is the challenge the group poses to politicians whose favourite reading is polls: to take the long view and invest in programmes which may, as the report claims, “benefit all New Zealanders” but may not produce much in the way of measurable outcomes for several terms of Parliament. And even then voters might not give credit.

A new prison and tougher laws wins votes at the next election. Can Key think bigger and longer? If not, why did he appoint Sir Peter?