Damning justice report challenges legal establishment
By Richard Harman (author)
The report on the Justice System chaired by former National Minister, Chester Burrows, has arrived too late to be a part of this year’s Wellbeing Budget.
But for those who argue the Budget was underwhelming, this report defines exactly the sort of problem that requires the multi-agency outcome-focused approach that Wellbeing is supposed to achieve.
It stands in stark contrast to the supposed wellbeing benefits of investment in Kiwirail.
At the same time, it challenges the National Party’s “tough on crime” philosophy which Leader Simon Bridges continually touts as one of his party's key political aims.
That it comes from one of his former Ministerial colleagues will undoubtedly heighten the tension between the two.
Yet if ever there was a case for a philosophical, political; debate in New Zealand, Burrows and his team have made it in this report.
Burrow is to report again, in August, when he will present some “solutions” to the issues he has raised.
And the issues are:
- too many people who have been harmed by crime feel unheard misunderstood and re-victimized
- the number of Māori in the system is a crisis
- violence is an enormous problem, particularly for families and children
- formal justice processes fail us too often
- the system is too focused on punishment and neglects prevention, rehabilitation, reconciliation and repair of the harm done by crime
- individuals, families and whānau feel unsupported and disempowered by the system, and the ability of iwi, hapū, four communities, NGOs and others to provide support is constrained by the siloed nature of government structures and funding arrangements
- people experiencing mental distress lack the support they need.
But it is the situation among Maori that stands out the most starkly in the report.
One in five Maori men will have been imprisoned by the time they are 35; 51% of the prison population are Maori, and New Zealand has higher imprisonment rate than Australia, the United Kingdom or Canada.
“The data tells the story that, at every point in their lives, and over generations, Māori experience disadvantage that increases the risk they will come into contact with the criminal justice system, "the report says.
“Poorer physical and mental health, education, housing and employment outcomes significantly reduce their ability to participate in and contribute meaningfully to their whānau, communities and wider society.
“Combined with high rates of removal of their tamariki into state care and protection, leading many to describe Oranga Tamariki as a 'gateway into the criminal justice system', this has helped produce a situation where Māori now comprise around 16 per cent of the general population but make up: 38 per cent of people proceeded against by police; 42 per cent of adults convicted; 57 per cent of adults sentenced to prison.
“In the face of these facts, Māori we heard from were clear about the need to totally rethink the current criminal justice system.”
Burrows, a former police officer, lawyer and Minister of Courts, has brought a unique perspective to the report.
But perhaps his most unique perspective is as a former National MP.
He doesn't find it paradoxical that as a Nat, he should produce a report that appears to fundamentally conflict with his party's hard stance on law and order.
“What the public has been screaming out for is to get this off the political agenda,” he told POLITIK yesterday.
“If you read through that report, none of it screams out for a political debate.
“No one has ever been out and consulted the public on justice and law and order issues before.
“And the people we spoke to are people who actually work and have been subjected to the justice system.
“So none of this is political.
“This is just a view on the street, and the big challenge then is what are you going to do about it because if people think that there's some partisan political perspective on these things, actually they're wrong.
“If you look at the voices that are reflected in that report, they require evidence-based responses.
“And I don't think that's beyond National war or any other political party. “
But perhaps ominously, National didn’t even bother to put out a press statement reacting to Burrows’ report yesterday.
Justice Minister, Andrew Little, on the other hand, greeted it with some enthusiasm.
“The report provides sober reading,” he said.
“There are many stories and examples shared by victims, families, offenders and organizations that are upsetting, especially those that demonstrate failings in the system that could be avoided through simple, early and appropriate interventions.”
The report does not just report damning evidence about and stories from Maori; victims too feel the system does not serve them.
“Few of the people we spoke to who had been seriously harmed by crime reported positive experiences of the criminal justice system; many told us it produces further harm.
“Others told us the justice system is disempowering, confusing, slow and disrespectful.
“We heard, for many victims, the justice system leaves them with a sense that justice has not been done.’
Burrows says when he presents his "solutions" in August, it will probably be "more big picture.”
“it's probably going to be just as punchy that says the need is urgent and important.
“And it's more going to be about the behaviour of government agencies rather than really prescriptive.”
Hints of where it might go run right through the report, but it could venture into controversial territory with proposals on the very basis of the justice system.
At one point the report says formal justice processes, “in particular, the adversarial model, are not meeting the needs of those caught up in these processes, including people who have been victimized, people who have been accused of a crime, and their whānau and families.”
Any challenge to the British-derived adversarial system will be seen as a challenge to the entire legal establishment.
But Burrows says something radical has to be done.
“I've been knocking around the justice system for about 40 maybe 45 years; having said that I must be part of the blame for being there that long, "he told POLITIK.
“But at the same time you know it can be changed.
“And what it requires is the will of people who are working in it and have oversight of it to change and to recognize that we've thrown billions and billions of dollars and we've made little progress over the last 30 years. “
Andrew Little shares that optimism.
“The overwhelming sense is that we can make a change for the better, and deliver safer and more effective justice for all New Zealanders.”