New Zealand backs justice system transformation

A new survey supports fundamental changes to the country's criminal justice system, but a parallel study shows many still believe in a punitive system, Laura Walters reports

A new survey suggests strong support amongst Kiwis for fundamental changes in the resourcing and funding of the criminal justice system, as well as a strong belief that Māori should be in charge of solutions for Māori, and less serious offences should be dealt with in communities.

The findings come from a voluntary online survey of more than 5000 New Zealanders, conducted by the Government’s Hāpaitia te Oranga Tangata - Safe and Effective Justice programme at the end of last year.

The survey was geared towards better understanding public perceptions and to test the appetite for transforming the criminal justice system.

The most significant results are in line with other reports produced through the Government’s justice reform programme.

These include an overwhelming belief that funding and resources were not being allocated in the right way (80 percent).

The majority of those surveyed said funding and resources were being put into the wrong places, and that the significant amount of money currently spent on managing sentences (prison and probation) and adjudicating cases (courts and police prosecutions), should be redirected towards supporting victims, preventing crime and offender rehabilitation programmes.

The results also showed 80 percent of people thought less serious offences should be dealt with in communities.

And 60 percent of respondents said Māori should take the lead on solutions to criminal justice issues for Māori.

While these results support the direction of travel advocated by Te Uepū Hāpai ite Ora, the Government’s Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group, questions remain over whether there is the public appetite for significant criminal justice reform.

The ‘tough on crime’ political rhetoric has long been a vote-winner and it’s been unclear whether the general public support the changes being talked about by the current Government. 

Many of the results from this survey give credence to the Labour Party’s direction of travel on criminal justice matters.

This is backed up by the belief victims’ interests should be at the heart of the system (80 percent agree), and that the purpose of a sentence was to deter someone from reoffending or to rehabilitate the person.

And the belief that social/economic factors are a significant driver in why people commit crime, rather than personal choice alone.

But the results on the purpose of the justice system, and the drivers of crime, are at odds with another survey released by the Ministry of Justice on Wednesday. These results signal a significant portion of society still believe in a somewhat punitive law and order system.

The ministry’s Social Wellbeing and Perceptions of the Criminal Justice System report, is based on the New Zealand Crime and Victims Survey 2019, and relied on interviews with 8000 people about their experiences and perceptions of crime.

The Crime and Victims Survey, which launched last year, is the country’s most robust research on crime and victimisation to date.

This survey found the majority of people believed the main purposes of the justice system were to stop reoffending (64 percent) and prevent crime (62 percent). But many still saw punishment as the key aim of the criminal justice system (57 percent), despite that being at odds with the current public discourse.

The 2018 Criminal Justice Summit heard the criminal justice system was overly punitive, and that this was particularly disconnected from Māori views, but this survey found there was no statistically significant difference between the proportion of Māori who selected punishment as one of the key aims of the criminal justice system (54 percent), compared to 56 percent for Pākeha, or 57 percent of people in total. 

Pacific peoples, on the other hand, did not support punishment as a key aim of the criminal justice system (45 percent), while Asian people were more likely to see punishment as the system’s aim (65 percent).

Also contradictory to the Hāpaitia te Oranga Tangata survey, was the ministry’s finding that 50 percent of New Zealand adults believed committing a crime was a choice and not driven by the person’s social circumstances.

Justice sector deputy secretary Tim Hampton said while there were disparities between the two reports (which used different methodologies) there was common ground found on a number of topics.

While there were differing views on the part social circumstances and personal choice played in driving crime, the vast majority of people agreed that offenders could go on to lead productive lives with some help and hard work.

Hampton said the report gave fascinating insights into what Kiwis agreed on and what they didn’t.

“The results shed light on areas of the criminal justice system that could be improved and made safer and more effective for all New Zealanders, which can provide a baseline to examine the effectiveness of initiatives,” he said.

Overall, the ministry’s survey found most New Zealanders feel safe and reported high-levels of social connectedness and trust; most adults who had recent contact with the criminal justice system said their experience was positive; and most New Zealanders believed the police and groups that supported victims were doing a good job.

However, Kiwis had less-positive views of judges, juries, probation officers,criminal lawyers, and the prison service.

It also found there were strong disparities in social wellbeing, feelings of safety, and perceptions and experience of the system for different communities.

While there was a solid level of trust in the criminal justice system, Pacific peoples and Indian New Zealanders were more concerned about being the victim of a crime than other New Zealand adults, Hampton said. 

One in five (20 percent) Pacific people said they worried all or most of the time about being a victim, compared to 1 in 20 (5 percent) Pākehā. However, the difference in the actual experience of crime for these groups was small and not statistically significant (32 percent compared to 31 percent).

The survey noted worry about crime was highly correlated with measures of social connectedness and social trust.

Meanwhile, Māori and Pacific peoples were less likely to agree that New Zealanders were treated fairly by the Police. And Māori, Chinese and Pacific adults were all less likely to feel their values aligned with the criminal justice system.

The data used for the ministry’s perceptions survey is gathered from crime and victimisation research that is considered New Zealand’s gold-standard. Meanwhile, the Hāpaitia survey provided a more qualitative insight into New Zealanders’ views of proposals to transform the criminal justice system, particularly among those who’ve experienced it personally, and found an overwhelming majority of people surveyed want transformation in the justice system.

Help us create a sustainable future for independent local journalism

As New Zealand moves from crisis to recovery mode the need to support local industry has been brought into sharp relief.

As our journalists work to ask the hard questions about our recovery, we also look to you, our readers for support. Reader donations are critical to what we do. If you can help us, please click the button to ensure we can continue to provide quality independent journalism you can trust.

With thanks to our partners