Fixing the justice system will take a generation

Fixing New Zealand's justice system is going to take at least a generation.

New Zealand has one of the highest incarceration rates in the OECD, with the prison population hitting a record high of 10,820 earlier in the year.

Since then the population has decreased, but there is widespread acceptance that New Zealand has a broken justice system.

Head of the Government’s justice advisory panel – Te Uepū Hāpai i te Ora – Chester Borrows said the type of changes being promised, and that New Zealand needed, would take at least a generation to be delivered.

Justice Minister Andrew Little and National Party justice spokesman Mark Mitchell agreed with Borrows.

“These changes require all our efforts and require a lot of patience and time,” Borrows said at a conference on restorative justice at Victoria University on Wednesday.

“We need to build confidence in our criminal justice system; we need to strengthen relationships with each other to find solutions; in particular strengthen Treaty-based partnerships with Māori; to build common purpose for the criminal justice system; and we need time.

“While the need is really urgent, we are also realistic and understand that real transformative change can take at least a generation, if not longer.”

Little said the Government knew this would be a long-term project. Those leading the charge needed to change attitudes and try new things.

“The balance you’re always trying to strike is we know we need to do things differently, and do new things, but I think the public quite rightly wants to see that whatever we try that is new actually works – still keeps them safe – but improves what we’re achieving for offenders to stop them from offending again. And that is going to take a while to do that.

“Once New Zealanders can see that by doing different things it does work, it does make it better, communities are safer, they’ll stick with it. And they’ll want successive governments to stick with it too," he said.

Mitchell agreed consistent, long-term change would take a generation.

“The issues we’re talking about are intergenerational and it takes time to fix those.”

While the Government of the day needed to address urgent issues in the present, reforms across the social sector and criminal justice system were needed to fix the current deep-seated problems, Mitchell said.

The effects of those changes would flow through into the criminal justice system and pull down the prison population in 10 or 20 years, not one or two.

However, the Government had set itself a very clear goal to reduce the prison population by 30 percent in 15 years.

New areas of focus

Borrows, who has been tasked with heading the group that would report back to Little in March with recommendations, said he was scaling back expectations.

“It’s a big ask, and there’s huge expectation out there that we will personally sit down with all 4.5 million New Zealanders and report back in March with recommendations for transformative change.”

The panel did expect to deliver some suggestions for transformative change within the justice system, he said.

The national conversation on justice reform was officially launched at a summit in Porirua in August, where close to 700 people attended to share their views on what was wrong with the system, and how to fix it.

Social media pictures from the summit, and work leading up to it, showed hundreds of ideas scrawled on colourful post-it notes.

Since then, Borrows’ Te Uepū had grouped the ideas into three main themes, where broad shifts were required:

- A change in focus from punishment to healing

- A change in focus from individual victim and offender to whānau

- And a change in focus from state intervention to community support

Mitchell’s response to these three areas were mixed.

Community buy-in was crucial in terms of rehabilitation and reintegration. Support from community and whānau, was a big part of National’s social investment approach, he said.

However, it was important to keep the victim at the core throughout the justice process, he said, adding that he would reserve judgment on this point until the panel had developed a more specific approach.

Lastly, Mitchell said New Zealand had “some of the best” rehabilitation and training programmes for offenders, but “there definitely has to be punishment, without a doubt”.

Looking to restorative justice

Borrows drew a parallel between the three areas identified and the approach taken by restorative justice practices.

While New Zealand’s justice system had rightly been described as being “broken”, or “in crisis”, there were pockets that worked well.

Ministry of Justice surveys found 12 percent of victims said they had faith in the justice system, however, 80 percent of victims who had participated in restorative justice practices said they were satisfied with the overall experience.

But the use of restorative practices could be widened, especially among the Māori population in the criminal justice system.

Tom Noakes-Duncan, Victoria University of Wellington lecturer with the university’s Chair in Restorative Justice, said New Zealand’s restorative approaches within the adult criminal justice system were largely restricted to the diversion and pre-sentence areas.

At the same time, our rate of imprisonment has reached one of the highest in the developed world, with projections only set to increase.

This has had a disproportionate impact on Māori, he said.

Māori represented more than 50 percent of the prison population, and 63 percent of the female prison population, while accounting for about 15 percent of the general population.

New Zealand needed to identify ways to better achieve restorative outcomes grounded in our own indigenous soil, and generate an agreed set of proposals that could serve as a guide for future policy and practice, he said.

Restorative justice chair Chris Marshall said ultimately Aotearoa had to forge its own path when it came to fixing the justice system.

“But the problem is so immense, so longstanding, so deep-seated, and so massively damaging that we need every ounce of insight and inspiration that we can gather for the task ahead,” he said.

Te Uepū is conducting hui around the country, to hear from those who did not attend the summit in August.

Borrows is expected to provide an initial report by the end of the year, and recommendations to the minister by March. Little says there’s a chance the deadline could stretch into April 2019.

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