Politics

Systemic concerns outlined at justice summit

The Government’s criminal justice summit has wrapped up, with comments from victims, offenders and advocates highlighting the diversity of views about how to fix the system.

After two days of talk, the hard work begins.

The Government’s criminal justice summit wrapped up at Porirua’s Te Rauparaha Arena on Wednesday, with the hundreds of attendees heading out into the crisp winter air to move ahead with the ideas that had been thrown about.

Speaking to media, Justice Minister Andrew Little said the summit was an attempt to “get the conversation going” about what change was needed, while hearing people’s stories.

“I can look at the figures, and we’ve looked at the figures and said, ‘Gee, this looks a bit odd, we need to do something about this’, [but] when you actually hear people who are in the system talking about what’s happened to them, how they’ve got there, the lack of support they’ve had, it certainly brings it to life.”

So what were the issues that were brought to life by participants?

'The big brown elephant in the room'

Unsurprisingly, the over-representation of Māori in the prison population and throughout the justice system was near the top of the agenda for many.

Former police officer and Te Puea Marae chairman Hurimoana Dennis spoke about “the big brown elephant in the room” which had in the past been ignored but was now front and centre.

“I have to say I’m extremely encouraged by the language that you’re using, the audacious position that you’ve put yourselves in, and the direction – tena koutou.”

Dennis said one of his concerns was the lack of a consistent strategy by and for Māori across the entire justice system, setting “terms of engagement”.

“We’re talking about a 30-year system focused on punitive and colonial attitudes and now we’re saying we need to change that - this is not going to happen overnight, it will take time.”

Laura O’Connell Rapira, the co-director of ActionStation, said the campaign group had carried out a survey on Māori perspectives of the justice system, with 90 percent agreeing that structural racism, colonisation and intergenerational trauma were the reasons for their over-representation in the prison population.

“It speaks to the need for systemic change, really transformative change, and my hope is that is what comes out of this hui because it’s been called for pretty much my whole life from Māori communities.”

Associate Justice Minister Aupito William Sio agreed that colonisation was an issue that could not be ignored, but warned there was no quick fix.

“We’re talking about a 30-year system focused on punitive and colonial attitudes and now we’re saying we need to change that - this is not going to happen overnight, it will take time.”

Victims left out?

One criticism of the summit, that it failed to adequately account for the perspective of victims, was emphasised by several comments from the floor.

Jayne Crothall spoke about the death of her three-year-old daughter Brittany in 1997, at the hands of an attacker who also “tried to kill me with a hammer [and] smashed my body to pieces”.

“Today [Wednesday] should be her 25th birthday, and she should be celebrating but she’s not – same with a lot of people here today that have had their loved ones murdered...we represent a lot of people who can't speak today because they’re dead.”

Crothall, a member of the Sensible Sentencing Trust, said the event had been “horrendous” for victims of crime who were being re-victimised as a result of discussions which called their suffering into question.

“People here have been told they don’t know what it’s like to be a victim because they’re European…there’s been a lot of blame, there’s been a lot of excuses, there’s been a lot of experts of criminology, no experts on victimology.”

"We talk about victims but we don’t really talk about victims. We talk about perpetrators and the victims are basically second-class citizens."

Ken Clearwater, a trustee of Male Survivors Aotearoa and advocate for male victims of sexual trauma, said he had also found shortcomings in some of the discussions.

“We talk about victims but we don’t really talk about victims. We talk about perpetrators and the victims are basically second-class citizens, we spend billions of dollars on an appalling prison system we all known doesn’t and hasn’t worked, and we give peanuts to victims of sexual trauma and physical trauma in this country.”

It was a line of criticism which Little acknowledged, saying he would “not sign off on a programme of reform that does not result in meaningful change for victims of crime”.

Another conference, focused on victims, may be on the way, with Little telling the crowd to watch for an announcement in the coming weeks.

Former prisoner Billy Macfarlane said the Government needed to address how prisoners were forced into shared cells without a proper assessment. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

But Little said it was important to also hear the experiences of offenders, and many shared their thoughts on the problems with the current system.

Jacob Skilling, who served seven years of a nine-year sentence for an assault and is still on parole, said he had come from a background of abuse and addiction.

During his time on remand, his co-offender “who’s not blood but is blood to me”, hanged himself.

“I sat in my cell looking up above me at my own taonga to me, my brother, thinking, ‘How do I get to him? He's hanging.’ He died that day.”

Skilling said the Government needed to focus more on rehabilitation and supporting the youth of today, who would provide inspiration for future generations.

“What they’re doing is they’re signing away their freedom."

Another former prisoner, Billy Macfarlane, said the Government needed to urgently improve the system for shared accommodation cell risk assessments.

“If any of you have ever been bullied in school, imagine having to go home and cell up with the bully and sleep with him, and sleep on the floor yourself because he’s taken everything off you, he’s taken your phone cards so you can’t contact your family.”

Given the high rates of illiteracy in prison, there was no point in “pushing a piece of paper under their nose” and asking them to sign it, Macfarlane said.

“What they’re doing is they’re signing away their freedom. This is why we’re having young men coming in for driving charges, getting celled up with high-ranking gang members, and coming out of their cells with gang tattoos on their faces, and this is why we have young men in prison hanging themselves.”

Not the pinnacle, but the start of the climb

Now, the challenge is to turn the rhetoric into reality.

Little said officials had been gathering ideas and issues raised at the summit, and would provide them to the justice advisory group - set to provide advice on the way ahead to the Government earlier next year.

One of the group’s members, sociologist Jarrod Gilbert, said the event had exceeded his expectations.

“I’ve heard from a lot of people that I needed to hear from, and particularly for me around the victims actually.”

Gilbert said there was a clear desire for change, “akin to a mandate”, from those who had been in attendance which could help with the way ahead.

While the National Party had been “disparaging” of some parts of the summit, it was important to focus on the areas where both sides of Parliament did agree, such as improved rehabilitation services.

The test for the group now, Gilbert said, was to start firming up some of the better ideas while continuing to listen from New Zealanders around the country.

“It’s easy to see this summit as being a pinnacle - in so many ways it’s really a start, we’re just starting the climb.”

The success of the summit would not be determined by how attendees felt leaving, he said, but on the real reforms which came out of it.

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