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Why a radical approach is needed to fix our broken justice system

Justice reinvestment redirects spending on criminal justice into social justice initiatives that strengthen communities and reduce social harms. Criminology professor Elizabeth Stanley explains why it could be game-changing.

New Zealanders have long grappled with an obsession with criminal justice expansions, even though crime rates are on the decline. We tell ourselves: “Just another thousand police officers. Just one more prison. It’ll be fine after that. We promise we’ll stop there. They’ll be better. We won’t need any more.”

Of course, the impacts of our overuse have been pretty harmful. We spend an enormous amount of money, time and resources on criminal justice measures. There are sustained levels of trauma in targeted communities. There are high reoffending rates. Victims don’t sense they are believed or supported. New Zealanders often report they worry about safety.

Māori are by far and wide the most affected by the harms of this system – disproportionately likely to be arrested, charged and incarcerated, and as a group the most likely to experience harm as well.

Amid the emotion, some politicians do their best to convince us of one more “getting tough” hit. But the dominant talk of late has been focused on rethinking our situation. Over the past two years, government-established bodies such as Te Uepū Hāpai i te Ora – The Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group have outlined New Zealand’s urgent need for this.

It is strikingly clear the current system that relies on disproportionate levels of criminalisation, enforcement and adversarial approaches is not working for us, and cannot remain in place. There has been a lot of talk about how criminal justice should be transformed, decolonised, defunded or radically reformed.

And a radical approach is all the more necessary as we grapple with the impact Covid-19 and the economic hardships it has created will have on marginalised communities, particularly Māori, who have largely been shut out of the government’s crisis response.

Yet, what to do next? It is one thing to call for change, another to build new solutions. Our criminal justice habits are hard to break. One solution explored in a new report by Just Speak lies in the idea and practice of justice reinvestment.

JR programmes have a simple aim: to redirect spending on criminal justice into social justice initiatives that strengthen communities and reduce social harms, including offending behaviours.

Sounds good, right?

There is no “one size fits all” approach to justice reinvestment but successful projects are community-led, place-based and data-driven. What do these three steps mean in practice?

To start, JR centralises communities as experts and places indigenous voices, culture, authority and knowledge at the forefront of appropriate solutions and services. In doing so, JR moves away from state-led or directed programmes, and emphasises decolonising responses.

From here, JR initiatives are tailored toward those places and communities that are criminalised. Rather than finding problems with the members of those communities (as is often the common refrain – looking at you, social investment model!), JR challenges the social, cultural, economic or political conditions as well as the institutional activities that create the conditions for certain kinds of offending behaviours and responses to happen.

And then JR projects work with accurate, transparent data as evidence for change – to direct strategic decision-making, to build and assess programmes, or to evaluate the subsequent benefits that accrue to communities.

Going for justice reinvestment requires a leap of faith. But the results can be impressive. The Maranguka Justice Reinvestment project in Bourke, New South Wales, has already led to significant decreases in rates of domestic violence, violent assaults, charges of juvenile offending, bail breaches, truancy and custody terms, among other measures. This success is in large part because the project was both initiated and governed by indigenous leaders from the Bourke community.

A KPMG report estimates that changes from the Maranguka project have resulted in an impact of $3.1 million for 2017, from reduced justice spending as well as broader positive economic impacts to the region. Anecdotally, those living in Bourke are participating more in community activities and there are better relationships within families. People feel safer. They have a stronger sense of belonging. The Maranguka project is transformative.

Yet, JR is not easy to maintain. A lot of the problems regularly lie with government and state agencies, not least as JR demands will not comply with the usual political cycles, policy reporting or funding models. Sometimes government actors can pounce on JR as a means to reduce spending but can be less enamoured when they discover JR cannot be sustained as a “cheap option”.

Further, for JR to succeed, governments have to stop redesigning and reinvesting in state-led criminal justice measures, regardless of their apparent progressive remit. Societal and justice transformation will not emerge under state management.

Despite all these difficulties, JR projects have begun to facilitate significant innovations overseas – not just within criminal justice settings, but across many societal settings and conditions. They have started to reframe criminal justice in ways that reduce violence, meet the needs of victims and improve outcomes for everyone in the community. In places like Bourke, it has been truly game-changing.

The question now is: is New Zealand ready to start taking action on the wide calls for transformative criminal justice? Can we break our habits? Is it time for justice reinvestment? Read the report from Just Speak here.

Professor Elizabeth Stanley is director of the Institute of Criminology at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington. She co-authored the Just Speak report with Joe Potter, holder of a 2020 Summer Scholarship at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington.



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