A new report from the justice advisory group Te Uepū Hāpai i te Ora challenges the government to find solutions in te ao Māori that restore relationships and mana instead of continuing to feed Māori into the criminal justice system.
Grief. That was the overwhelming emotion people expressed to us when talking about the criminal justice system. Grief, because the system has not dealt with them fairly, compassionately, or with respect. And associated with the grief was often anger at a system that had let them down in all kinds of ways. But also – perhaps more frequently than you would reasonably expect – there was hope. Hope and belief that things could be better and we can build a justice system here in Aotearoa that works for everyone.
That was the tenor of what my fellow members of Te Uepū Hāpai i te Ora–the Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group and I heard from New Zealanders in submissions we received and in conversations we had around the country.
Our first report, He Waka Roimata (‘A Vessel of Tears’), reflects what people have told us about their experiences of the criminal justice system. We heard from people with direct experience of the criminal justice system – those who have been victimised, those who have been prosecuted for offending, families of those who have been harmed and/or of those who have harmed others, and those who offer services within the system. We also heard from other people, who may not have had direct experience of the justice system themselves, but, like us all, have a stake in how the criminal justice system operates and how it affects our communities. It was striking that everyone we heard from felt the current system was not working. What we heard reinforces the need for urgent reform of New Zealand’s criminal justice system.
A number of key themes emerged from what people told us.
Many people who have been harmed by crime feel unheard, misunderstood and revictimised by the justice system. It is clear the justice system needs to be far more responsive to the needs of victims. We heard experiences of racism embedded within the criminal justice and the harm the system has done to Māori who have both been victimised and who have harmed. We heard of the particular need to find different and more effective ways of addressing family violence and sexual violence.
More generally, people were frustrated with aspects of formal justice processes and told us they wanted to see more alternative ways of dealing with criminal offending and better use of processes informed by tikanga Māori and restorative justice approaches. People told us the system focuses too much on punishment at the expense of rehabilitation, reconciliation and restoration, and they wanted to see responses that focused on prevention. We heard the need to address issues relating to mental health, addiction and drug and alcohol abuse as health issues, rather than criminal justice issues. And, in attending to the criminal justice system, many people told us our broader social system must be attended to as well.
It is clear New Zealand needs to do better and successful transformation of the criminal will require reform throughout the whole system and a long-term commitment to change.
The experiences reflected in He Waka Roimata will come as no surprise to many New Zealanders. For example, many people will be aware of the over-representation of Māori at every stage of the criminal justice system as both victims and offenders. We heard that, for Māori, the impact of colonisation, neo-colonial practices and racism are everyday experiences that undermine, disenfranchise and frequently conspire to trap our people in the criminal justice system. This experience, and the severe intergenerational effect on whānau and communities, mirrors the impact on Indigenous peoples in other colonised countries.
Despite these challenges, Māori we spoke to were not without hope. Many offered tangible solutions to address problems of racism within the justice system. And we were told solutions already exist within the Māori world with practices based on cultural values that prioritise the restoration of relationships and focus on holistic responses. A strong message, often reinforced in our conversations, was that solutions to problems with the justice system that affect Māori must be led locally and by Māori if they are to produce positive results.
As someone who works primarily on legal issues affecting Māori and Indigenous peoples, I was particularly interested to hear clearly from many Māori that if the criminal justice system is to be improved, then constitutional change also needs to be addressed. Māori, in particular, want to realise the promises of Te Tiriti o Waitangi to develop and control their own institutions – as a real expression of tino rangatiratanga (self-determination). Change at a constitutional level was seen by many as necessary to ensure that Māori are decision-makers, working constructively with government, involved in programme design, implementation and governance of justice system responses.
Ultimately, delivering the kind of transformative change that is needed will require working together in new partnerships at all levels of the criminal justice system: with people who have been harmed, people who offend, their whānau and families and local communities.
We note in He Waka Roimata that, although the challenges are significant, New Zealand has a history of distinctive responses to important social issues. We have shown global leadership in many areas and we can demonstrate this leadership again in building a safe and effective justice system that supports the wellbeing of all our communities.
Dr Carwyn Jones is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Law at Victoria University of Wellington.