Ministers laid out the cracks in the criminal justice system on the first day of the Government’s criminal justice summit. Claims that the event would be just another “talkfest” seemed to be initially borne out, but a better balance developed as the day wore on, as Sam Sachdeva reports.

At Porirua’s Te Tauparaha Arena, active engagement was the catchcry of the day.

About 700 people attended the first day of the Government’s criminal justice summit, the starting point for what could be years of reforms if ministers have their way.

Whiteboards and post-it notes abounded: mechanisms to get the summit’s participants to share their views on how the justice system needed to change.

One of the summit’s MCs, Stuff journalist Alison Mau, told the crowd their job was to be “change agents for the next two days”.

“We ask you to be vulnerable, to be human – don’t be a dick.”

Opening the event, Porirua Deputy Mayor Izzy Ford said it was not designed to be a “talkfest” – one of the critiques of the event when it was announced.

However, critics would have found grist for their mill as each of the justice sector ministers took their turn to speak to the crowd about their concerns regarding the current system and visions for reform.

Justice Minister Andrew Little contrasted the image of New Zealand as a “small, peaceful country with no obvious enemies on our border” against the country’s darker side: record homelessness; grinding poverty; strained mental health and addiction services; and a skyrocketing prison population.

Little said there were fundamental questions about the justice system that needed answering: how to tackle high levels of domestic violence and reduce over-representation of Māori in prison; and how to ensure prisoners get the support they need to reduce their risk of reoffending.

“Many years of public debate and public discussion about criminal justice [have] focused on one thing: how are we going to lock them up and get them out of our way…

“We haven’t much talked in the last 30 years about what we do to change people, at least those who can be changed because they have understandable, identifiable problems and challenges in their lives which with a bit of effort we can turn around.”

Little made a point of singling out the National MPs in attendance despite their publicly expressed concerns about possible reforms, in a sign of the political battle the Government knows it has on its hands.

“If one of the things that we get from the conversation that we get to trigger in these two days is understanding, an agreed understanding about the gaps in national policy, about the way forward, some things we can do better, some things we can do differently, then that will help the debate,” he said.

“Gone are the days when we lock people up and ask questions second.”

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis asked for a show of hands from those who thought the justice system was perfect – predictably, none were raised – before asking the crowd to “ask hard questions” of the Government and provide ideas for change.

“None of us are precious about what’s going on, and we know things have to change, so we have to have the courage to challenge the status quo.”

Police Minister Stuart Nash, who on Monday announced the details of where the 1800 extra police funded by the Government would go, said that boost would not mean an equivalent rise in prison numbers as police took new approaches to crime.

“Gone are the days when we lock people up and ask questions second.”

The challenge was not knowing that the system needed to change, Nash said, but making the case to the public in a way that they could understand.

“I do believe when I talk to people who are not politically aligned or socially aware, they are uncomfortable with the level of incarceration, they are uncomfortable with the fact that Corrections’ operating budget has increased by a billion dollars a year over the last 12 years, and they’re open and receptive to an alternative vision.”

Parliamentary undersecretary Jan Logie, a Green MP who is working under Little on domestic and sexual violence issues – work he described as “profoundly important” – then spoke about the flow-on impact of sexual and family violence on people who then went on to offend themselves, and the need to provide better support services.

Some frustration bubbled over as Logie finished her speech, with an interjector standing up and urging the organisers to “let Māori speak for us”.

“We don’t need to hear some organised speech, a pre-written speech to talk about us,” Anzac Wallace said.

Anzac Wallace said he had concerns about the summit’s approach to Māori. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

Speaking to Newsroom later, Wallace said he visited jails every day through his role as kai whakaruruhau for the Manukau Urban Māori Authority, and was frustrated with Māori being singled out as a topic of concern without being properly represented in the resolution process.

“It [Logie’s speech] was just like one of those tape recordings, speechwriter speaking, it wasn’t addressing me – it was talking at me and addressing a Māori problem…

“We all know there’s a problem, do something that’s fair to correct it.”

Wallace, who spent time in prison, said Māori often went to jail for offences for which Pākehā did not, while sentencing laws needed to change.

National’s justice spokesman Mark Mitchell seized on the “boilover” as a sign of the Government’s failure to properly plan the summit.

“Fundamentally we’re going down two different tracks: we believe that at the heart of any good criminal justice system, public safety and victims should be at the heart of that.”

“They feel that there’s been too much talk, too many working groups, no action, and that’s basically what we’ve been saying…this has basically been like a big counselling session, and although these voices are important, this isn’t the right format.”

National had said it would support reforms which made a difference, Mitchell said, but did not support where the Government appeared to be heading.

“At the moment, and this was part of our discussion, fundamentally we’re going down two different tracks: we believe that at the heart of any good criminal justice system, public safety and victims should be at the heart of that.”

Talk gives way to action

As the day wore on, though, those concerns about too much talking appeared to subside somewhat, as the audience broke into separate panels to talk about the nitty gritty of reform.

At a session on victims, participants spoke about their own traumatic experiences, about the lack of support they and their families received from the justice system.

There was criticism of the adversarial justice system, with complainants “humiliated, laughed at and labelled as liars”, and explanations of how victims felt a loss of control as they tried to get help and justice.

It is these participative sessions, which will continue on Wednesday, that may determine whether or not the summit produces any ideas for reform of real value.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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