Book Review: Flying Blind by Roger Brooking

FLYING BLIND by Roger Brooking

Review by Batch Hales

This authoritative book exposes an ongoing scandal within the New Zealand justice system that is costing the country dearly both in its international reputation and internal social and economic wellbeing. It involves political cover-ups and decisions that ignore expert analysis, advice and examples. The book pulls no punches, names names and offers no excuses. It is endorsed by a long list of experts: Sir Geoffrey Palmer, Professor Doug Sellman, Dr Garesh Nana, Kim Workman, Peter Williams QC, Emeritus Professor Tony Taylor, Robert Steenhuisen, and Nicky Hager.


Let us look at some crime and prison statistics:

Total number convicted for offending each year                           120,000+

Number of people convicted for drink driving each year                  30,000

Crime that is alcohol or drug related                                                      80%

Offenders referred for alcohol or drug assessments                                5%

Number of people spending time in prison each year                        20,000

Rate of imprisonment                                                          203 per 100,000

Maori rate of imprisonment                                                 704 per 100,000

Inmates with alcohol or drug related offending                                    90%

Inmates accessing alcohol or drug treatment in prison                            5%

Rate of recidivism (return to prison)              25% in 1 year; 52% in 5 years

Rate of recidivism for under 20s                                           70% in 5 years


The scandal is that there is virtually no assessment or treatment of drug or alcohol problems at any stage of the justice system, from sentencing, through incarceration to parole and rehabilitation. This is in face of overwhelming evidence from overseas practice that drug and alcohol intervention programmes are very effective in preventing reoffending.

The failure has many factors:

1)      failure of judges to recommend assessment or counselling (even after multiple convictions)

2)      lack of appropriate facilities and programmes that could be used in community-based alternatives to prison

3)      lack of access to any programmes for those on remand or with sentences of less than two years

4)      lack of suitable prison-based programmes

5)      failure of corrections to assess alcohol and drug issues

6)      failure of corrections to release information to parole boards

7)      lack of any real community based rehabilitation of prisoners

The facts presented by Brooking are not new. They have been presented to the government by many reputable advisers over many years. There have been research reports and comparative reports presented. But they have all been ignored.

Brooking provides several case studies, three in depth. By the time one offender was referred for drug and alcohol assessment at the age of 33 he had already sustained 65 convictions, eight for drink-driving and four for possession of cannabis. After completing the Salvation Army Bridge programme he did not reoffend. This case is typical of a number cited in the book. It costs more than $90,000 a year to keep a person in prison. This offender is estimated to have cost $1,000,000 in prison and court costs.  Tha Bridge programme cost $6,000.

Of course the lack of recognition, assessment or treatment of alcohol and drug problems is only the symptom of a more egregious scandal, that of the government's callous disregard for effective social policy. Despite the obvious cost-effectiveness of community-based treatment and rehabilitation, the government prefers to follow a counterproductive policy of punishment and blame. Despite clear evidence that the raising of taxes on alcohol is the most effective way of reducing abuse, the government refuses to go down that path. Despite the need for intervention to prevent repeat offending the government will not provide prison or community based treatment facilities.

Consider these facts:

  • Even though our levels of crime are relatively low, we have the second highest rate of imprisonment in the Western world (and level with Gabon, Namibia and Libya) and our rate is steadily increasing, while the rates in other countries are dropping
  • Although Judith Collins claims that rehabilitation and reintegration are key government priorities, she allocated more money on new uniforms for prison officers than the entire annual budget for prison-based alcohol and drug treatment
  • There are only two halfway houses with a total of 28 beds available for prisoners re-entering society.
  • Both National and Labour before it have actually reduced the number of support services and treatment facilities available in the community.
  • Both Labour and National have poured money into the development of new prisons, which money could have been much more effectively spent on dealing with drug and alcohol problems
  • Simon Power, Judith Collins and John Key all attended and gave speeches in 2008 at the annual conference of Garth McVicar's so-called Sensible Sentencing Trust, but none bothered to turn up to the NZ Prison Fellowship conference a month later.

The economic and social costs of inaction are vastly outweighed by the costs and benefits of action, as is shown through policies of Canada, Finland, Norway, South Africa and Victoria. The financial commitment is repaid many times over by the reduction in prison numbers and the social consequences of alcohol and drug dependence.

All that is required is political will.

You must read this book!

The Flying Blind website.