Justice

Damning justice report makes case for change

The first report from the panel tasked with leading justice system reform paints a damning picture. Laura Walters talks to Chester Borrows about whether he believes New Zealand can achieve transformative change.

The head of the panel tasked with creating a plan to fix the justice sector says he believes there is finally the political will across different parties to make wholesale change.

Chester Borrows, chair of Te Uepū Hāpai i te Ora (Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group) said those who had spoken to the panel were “pretty emphatic” about the need for significant change to how the justice system functioned.

It had been clear for decades the justice system was not working but it was the first time a Government had attempted to hold conversations on this scale and attempt radical change, Borrows said.

In the past, the ‘tough on crime’ political rhetoric and a fear of losing votes dampened any will to make meaningful changes to the system.

And tinkering with technical pieces of legislation to try and achieve change – such as Andrew Little’s scuppered attempt to repeal three strikes legislation - had been ineffective, due to party politics and a tendency for politicians to stand behind legislation they helped create.

Borrows said this time it was different, and change would be substantive, with a whole new approach rather than “tinkering at the edges”.

Those who shared their experiences wanted transformative change in the way different people in the sector viewed their roles, and the way they dealt with people, he said.

“I’m absolutely convinced there is the political will and I think that will span the different political parties.”

While the need to change New Zealand's approach to justice was urgent, it would not be a case of “flipping a switch”. Last year, Borrows told Newsroom he believed fixing the justice system would take a generation.

Everyone will need to listen and understand the case for change.

“Sometimes people don’t want to own the fact that they’ve been doing stuff wrong… no-one wants to hear that about the work they’ve dedicated their lives to.”

“The overwhelming impression we got from people who have experienced the criminal justice system is one of grief. "

But no-one, regardless of their background or political leanings, would be able to argue with the common sense of changes like ensuring all prisoners, including those on remand, have access to support and rehabilitation programmes, he said.

Tania Sawicki Mead, the director of justice lobby group JustSpeak, echoed Borrows’ sentiment, saying the only way forward was a cross-party consensus that the current model was broken and that the anti-evidence ‘tough-on-crime’ approach from politicians did not work.

“In order to make the transformational change sorely needed, parties across the political spectrum must work together and commit to a compassionate, evidence-based justice system.”

If the country wanted to avoid repeating this process in another 30 years, the Government also had to address the drivers of crime, she said.

Report makes for 'sober reading'

Borrows’ comments come as Te Uepū releases its first report on the justice system, since being tasked with leading the national conversation on justice sector reform last year.

The aptly named He Waka Roimata – A Vessel of Tears – is a feedback report, created from conversations at 220 hui in 13 regions, and hundreds of other discussions and online submissions.

The report on the issues plaguing the system was taken to Cabinet earlier this week, and is a precursor to Te Uepū’s recommendations on how to change the system and address the issues, which are due later in the year.

The overwhelming message from the first report is that regardless of how New Zealanders come into contact with the justice system, it is failing them and their families.

The report’s general findings and themes are not surprising, but the extent to which victims, Māori, offenders and families were failed by the system paints a damning picture.

“The overwhelming impression we got from people who have experienced the criminal justice system is one of grief. Far too many New Zealanders feel the system has not dealt with them fairly, compassionately or with respect - and in many cases has caused more harm,” Borrows said.

He said the starkness of the examples of the “blind ignorance” and  “cold-hearted nature" of the system which the panel heard was shocking, adding that some cases showed the system “lacked humanity” and was blatantly racist.

The report identifies three core symptoms of the system’s failure: the high rates of violence, particularly family and sexual violence; the disproportionate and intergenerational effect on Māori; and the high imprisonment and reoffending rates.

The fact that 60 percent of prisoners reoffend within two years of leaving prison is evidence of its ineffectiveness.

"There are many stories and examples shared by victims, families, offenders and organisations that are upsetting, especially those that demonstrate failings in the system that could be avoided through simple, early and appropriate interventions."

Meanwhile, victims are being left with a sense that justice has not been done, showing people are being failed while they are at their most vulnerable.

“And for Māori the legacy of colonisation comes in many forms, many of them with tragic consequences, as is the case in all colonised countries where indigenous peoples are over-represented in prison,” Borrows said.

“This legacy is actually a gross unfairness and something we should not tolerate in New Zealand.”

There is widespread recognition that at every point in their lives, and over generations, Māori experience disadvantage that increases their risk of coming into contact with the criminal justice system, the report says.

The report also looks at formal and informal justice processes, the failed over-emphasis on punishment, the impact of mental health and addiction issues, and the causes of crime and how to prevent it.

Justice Minister Andrew Little said the report provided sober reading.

"There are many stories and examples shared by victims, families, offenders and organisations that are upsetting, especially those that demonstrate failings in the system that could be avoided through simple, early and appropriate interventions."

But the report also offered hope, he said.

“The overwhelming sense is that we can make change for the better, and deliver safer and more effective justice for all New Zealanders.”

It demonstrated a public appetite for “long-term sustainable and enduring transformation in the justice system”.

Green Party justice spokesperson Golriz Ghahraman agreed the report painted a sad picture of the state of the criminal justice system.

"There must be a transformational change in the systems and culture of our justice institutions… Our justice system must adopt new, evidence based approaches to reduce recidivism, there must be compassion and fairness."

The Government was starting to address these issues through initiatives like the $320 million of funding in Budget 2019 for responding to family and sexual violence.

However, there was much more work to do, she said.

"There must be a transformational change in the systems and culture of our justice institutions… Our justice system must adopt new, evidence based approaches to reduce recidivism, there must be compassion and fairness."

Borrows said the panel was convinced solutions already existed, and people from all sectors of society wanted to be engaged in building a justice system the country could take pride in.

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