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New report on criminal justice from The Salvation Army

Opinion – The Howard League Wellington

This year has seen an unusually large number of important New Zealand criminal justice reports and think pieces. The Ministry of Justice’s Hpaitia te Oranga Tangata safe and effective programme has led the way, with the Te Uep Hpai i te Ora advisory …This year has seen an unusually large number of important New Zealand criminal justice reports and think pieces. The Ministry of Justice’s Hāpaitia te Oranga Tangata safe and effective programme has led the way, with the Te Uepū Hāpai i te Ora advisory group’s first report (He Waka Roimata (https://www.safeandeffectivejustice.govt.nz/assets/Uploads/7efb12cccb/teuepureport_hewakaroimata2.pdf)) and the more recent Māori hui’s manifesto (Inaia Tonu Nei (https://www.safeandeffectivejustice.govt.nz/about-this-work/hui-maori/)).

Hot on the heels of yesterday’s release of the Waitangi Tribunal’s He Aha i Pērā Ai? report on prisoner voting (https://forms.justice.govt.nz/search/Documents/WT/wt_DOC_151635085/He%20Aha%20i%20Pera%20Ai.pdf) comes the Salvation Army’s “Reconsidering the Aotearoa New Zealand Criminal Justice Policy Model.” This, of course, is all on top of the usual array of Ombudsman’s and Prison Inspectorate reports of individual prisons. Reporting on the criminal justice system, it seems, is fast becoming de rigueur.

Today’s Salvation Army’s contribution is proposed as the first of three briefing notes. It lays out a conceptual inter-weaving of theoretical approaches to criminal justice, which is a refreshing step to take given political preference will likely be to nibble around the edges of reforms and existing legislation rather than finding comfort in a complete uprooting of the entire system. The government’s compromised reaction to yesterday’s Waitangi Tribunal’s assertive statement on prisoner voting appears symptomatic of this, and not reflective the oft-stated “transformative change” promised for our broken justice system. The Salvation Army report also continues many threads which have permeated recent calls for reform. In this sense it revisits some well-worn acts: challenging “penal populism,” shaming NZ’s excessively high incarceration rate, and reiterating the disparity between punitive justice systems and successive rehabilitation and reintegration. Given Bill English’s ability to proclaim the moral and fiscal failure of prisons, this will not be the first time readers will read that “punishment models like prison do not work.” (p. 13). Equally, many will whole-heartedly agree with the description of NZ’s “expensive, ineffective, and inefficient [criminal justice] policy that sees up to half of all offenders reoffend within five years and one which is so institutionally racist that more than half of all prisoners are Māori” (p. 13).

Less common is the description of kaupapa Māori justice models, emphasising restoration and communal wholeness in a judicial process which is “exploratory and inquisitorial rather than accusatory and adversarial.” (p. 11). This – as the author suggests – will be where the potential for change is most powerful. However, unlike Inaia Tonu Nei, which propels its urgency about what must be done and when, the Salvation Army report takes its time, no doubt aware that it is the first act of a trilogy. Regardless I hope that the importance of the 71% of adults who comprise the majority of NZers unaffected by our criminal justice system is revisited in Briefing Note 2. More typically centre stage is given to the 29% who occupy the offender and victim statistics – and rightly so, given the need to properly understand the close and complex correlation between offenders, poverty and victimhood. As the report reminds us:

The typical offender is … likely to have experienced severe socioeconomic deprivation in his life … three quarters of offenders will have experienced violence, and up to four fifths of Māori offenders. A fifth would have experienced sexual violence. Three fifths would have experienced the unexpected death of someone close, for example, through murder or suicide. In their health histories, they are likely to have experienced traumatic brain injury, mental health problems, addictions, or have had other health issues … They will be broadly illiterate, more likely to smoke, and more likely to be long-term welfare recipients. They will have experienced poverty and family adversity including deficit parenting, school problems, and deviant peer affiliations. They will also be likely to be living in an area of high deprivation” (p. 4).

However perhaps now it is time to also spend a little time understanding how the other 71% – who have little personal knowledge of the system many of us think needs changing – tick? These will likely be the people who in the end actually decide what shape any future change will be, and so may be the critical component for any viable and long-term criminal justice reform.

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