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Time to invest in a justice system that reflects our values

The final report of the Justice Advisory Group sets out a bold vision for breaking down the current punitive and complicated maze entrapping far too many people - but will the Government follow up with the money and commitment needed for true change, asks Tania Sawicki Mead

It’s not every day that the Minister for Justice talks about the system that he oversees as “taking wrecked lives and wrecking them just a little bit more”.

But Andrew Little launched the final report of the Justice Advisory Group, Turuki! Turuki!, along with Ināia Tonu Nei from the justice hui Māori and recommendations from the Chief Victim’s advisor, with those sharp words. The question now, is exactly what his Government is going to do about it.

‘Wrecked lives’ does capture many of the central points from the collected reports. After speaking to thousands of New Zealanders, the advisory group have summarised the manifold failures of our justice system - failure to help those who are harmed, to prevent harm, meet diverse needs, and failing Māori.

... despite the feeling many of us have that ‘criminal justice’ is an inevitable, punitive and complicated maze, in reality it is a process we can transform based on values that represent who are, and who we want to be.

The Chief Victims advisor describes the system as “an immense and complicated maze”, which is ineffective, doesn’t listen and fails to keep victims safe.

But what is so powerful about Turuki! Turuki! is that the advisory group sets out a bold vision for justice that centres values which all New Zealanders hold dear: treat all people with humanity, dignity, respect and compassion; recognise the mana inherent in all people and communities; and enable the restoration of that mana whenever it has been diminished.

This vision is crucial, because despite the feeling many of us have that ‘criminal justice’ is an inevitable, punitive and complicated maze, in reality it is a process we can transform based on values that represent who are, and who we want to be.

Some people in politics want to keep this old system in place, even though where it’s taking us - more people in prisons, with the Crown imprisoning Māori seven times more than Pākehā - is a dead end.

So despite some snark from those same people about ‘yet another report’, people need to understand what an alternative system looks like if they are to have faith in the process of change.

But the impatience from those of us who have been alternatively participating in and waiting for this process to be completed is also justifiable.

Since this Government was elected with specific commitments to change our horrific justice statistics, not much has changed. We have one aspirational plan about how to change the culture and role of Corrections by centering Te Ao Māori with Hōkai Rangi. No one can deny the importance of treating people with dignity, but that won’t change the fact that we imprison people at one of the highest rates in the OECD.

We have some pretty vague commitments about partnership and reducing bias from Police, with Te Huringa O Te Tai. B+ for effort, but words on paper don’t carry the same power as armed police roving the streets and pulling people over for traffic violations. And what about the engine room of justice; the courts, prosecutors, judges and decisions that shape the trajectory of people’s lives?

... our system criminalises people for issues caused largely by the failure of our social support systems, and then punishes them with nothing to show for it but record high reoffending rates.

Thus far the only tangible commitment on that front has been the commitment to make the pilot drug courts permanent and establish a new one in Hamilton.

That’s largely positive news (although the threat of punishment inherent in therapeutic justice needs examining). But while addictions play a significant role in pushing people into the justice maze, they are one part of a much bigger problem: our system criminalises people for issues caused largely by the failure of our social support systems, and then punishes them with nothing to show for it but record high reoffending rates.

We can’t fix the process we call ‘justice’ if we don’t create paths that lead away from prison and towards better outcomes for people and their communities. Any reform programme that ignores this central point is doomed to fail.

Budget 2020 is this Government’s last opportunity to make a difference. As Chester Burrows bluntly put it this morning, “if this is so important to us, then we need to cough up”.

A lot of that change requires better and different laws and policies, and the decolonisation of our justice system where the Crown shares power and resources with Māori.

We knew that a long time ago, thanks to the tireless advocacy of people like Moana Jackson, but nothing more is really on Parliament’s ‘let’s do this’ agenda until after the election.

So Budget 2020 is this Government’s last opportunity to make a difference. As Chester Burrows bluntly put it this morning, “if this is so important to us, then we need to cough up”.

The Government can do this through significant public investment in the tangible processes that divert people out of this system that causes so much harm, and onto paths towards better outcomes and back to their communities.

What would that look like?

First, mainstream all the things that work well about specialist courts and the youth courts and make sure they are available to everyone, regardless of their postcode. Fund navigators with experience working in Te Ao Māori to work in the courts, connecting people with services, resources and people who can help them address the social causes of their offending.

Fund the services around mental health, addiction, family violence prevention and material need that would provide the alternative options that Judges are crying out for, in particular kaupapa Māori services. These could be truly transformative if people are connected before engagement with court even begins.

Put more money in social and emergency housing, so that homelessness or insecure housing doesn’t mean our system condemns people to imprisonment before they’ve been tried or sentenced.

Fund the whānau and communities who need support so that we can all thrive, and do that through organisations who have the trust of people they serve. Whānau Ora is an obvious contender here.

Put significant investment into legal aid and reducing the costs associated with court, so that access to justice is not a matter of money, but a fundamental right. As now Chief Justice Winkellman argued back in 2014, "if courts dispense justice for only the few, what does this mean for our concept that we are a nation that exists under the rule of law?.

Restore funding to, and training for, section 27 ‘cultural reports' for everyone, and in particular for Māori, so that Judges have a genuine understanding of who the person standing in front of them is, what they need and how their community will support them.

None of this is to say that justice transformation is just about how we spend money. Turuki! Turuki! and Inaia Tonu Nei are unequivocal that ‘political accord’ - or as I call it, an end to the relentless pursuit of fear based votes at the expense of community wellbeing- is also necessary.

But with an election on the horizon and political accord looking unlikely today, the one thing this Government can do right now is cough up, and invest in a system that embodies the values of Aotearoa New Zealand today.

Tania Sawicki Mead is the director of JustSpeak.org, a youth movement for transformative change in criminal justice.

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