ANALYSIS: Heading into the last election, Labour made big promises about criminal justice reform. Three years on, Laura Walters looks at what’s been achieved beyond a lot of discussion

The coalition Government’s criminal justice reform work has been marked by a lot of talking – as former National Party leader Simon Bridges would have put it: ‘a lot of hui’.

These conversations and public debates have been (in large part) earnest, constructive and many believe, necessary.

The group of experts tasked with evaluating the country’s criminal justice system have produced a collection of largely damning and genuinely heart-wrenching reports, along with recommendations on how New Zealand can do better.

But those who have lived or worked in the system – or against it – would say the reports don’t contain anything they didn’t already know.

With another election looming, and no certainty the next government will continue this work, there is a legitimate fear the opportunity to now achieve significant and tangible change may be lost if those advocating for reform don’t keep up the pressure.

“And we will sit with a number of others who have said these things in the past, and have just been consigned to history over the past 35 years,” says Chester Borrows, the man tasked with facilitating the national discussion on justice sector reform.

Where it began

Labour’s 2017 election promises were big and bold – slashing the ballooning prison population by 30 percent in 15 years wouldn’t come easy, as we’ve seen over the past three years.

This issue was thrust into the spotlight when the time came for the Government had to make a decision on the plans for Waikeria Prison – better known as the ‘US-style mega-prison’.

Labour put a stake in the ground, refusing to build the ‘mega-prison’, and instead promised to do criminal justice differently.

At the time, former Crown prosecutor, and now former National leader, Simon Bridges was looking to make his mark. ‘Tough on crime’ was an obvious rallying cry.

But it fast became clear to many that the big, and growing, prison population at the end of the line was an indication of failures at almost every stop along the way. 

This debate over the so-called ‘mega-prison’ caught the country’s attention and ignited a discussion about the merits of the long-standing vote-winner ‘tough on crime’.

Soon after, Justice Minister Andrew Little set out to take the pulse of the nation – would the public, those interacting with the system, and of course Labour’s coalition partner, New Zealand First, support widespread reform?

Te Uepū Hāpai i te Ora, the Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Panel, was tasked with identifying the issues offenders, family and victims have with the current system, and making suggestions on how to remodel the colonial system.

Slow and steady

If it sounds like a big piece of work, it was. And the pace at which this work has been carried out reflects this.

The National Party’s criticism of the speed of the Government’s reform programme is legitimate.

Opposition justice spokesperson Mark Mitchell said there had been a lack of tangible outcomes over the past term.

He said the work that had been done had been started by the former government, such sexual violence reforms.

“The Government talked a lot about reforming our justice sector, promising a ‘comprehensive system change’, but overall it has let New Zealanders down,” Mitchell said.

“It held a number of criminal justice summits, spent two years consulting the public… yet we’ve seen nothing new or impactful to come out of this.”

He also noted the significant price tag that came with running these types of national conversations ($1.63 million). Of course, there is also a big price tag on locking people in prisons ($100,000 per person, per year).

“Because this has been a political hotbed for a long time, I’ve always taken the view that we need to move at a pace that the electorate and that New Zealanders are comfortable with.” 

But things were never going to move quickly. 

Those at the helm felt they needed to chip away with public summits, private meetings, and research reports and education opportunities, to gain public support on such a hot-button issue.

Then add to the mix Labour’s struggle to get New Zealand First onside on more contentious pieces of work, such as the three strikes law.

Just because those doing the work expected it to be slow-going, doesn’t mean it hasn’t been frustrating.

Borrows, chair of Te Uepū Hāpai i te Ora, is the first to admit he’d hoped things would have moved faster.

But he also said he always knew educating the public on the systemic drivers of crime, and presenting accurate statistics to back that up, was a long game.

“For a lot of people… their head hurts when they start thinking about it. It’s much easier to put people into a pigeon hole and not think about it again.”

And while it’s an intangible, Borrows did think one of the greatest achievements of the past three years had been starting the conversation, and raising the profile of issues like systemic racism, the country’s prisoner remand problem, and the impacts of increasingly long court wait times.

Little doesn’t apologise for how long it’s taken to get to this point.

“Because this has been a political hotbed for a long time, I’ve always taken the view that we need to move at a pace that the electorate and that New Zealanders are comfortable with,” he said.

“We are at a point now where the public debate is sufficiently developed and we can just get on and do it.”

Tangible wins

Despite being slow off the blocks, the Government has made a significant number of legislative and system changes.

Little said a highlight was the establishment of the Criminal Cases Review Commission – set up as an independent body to review criminal convictions and sentences where there is a claimed miscarriage of justice. 

He was also pleased with locking in the Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Court, which had completed a successful pilot, but had waited in limbo to secure permanent funding and rollout.

He said he would like to see further support of therapeutic courts, including the sexual violence courts, the Court of New Beginnings for homeless offenders, and the Matariki Court where the person is able to participate in culturally appropriate rehabilitation before sentencing.

Aside from this – should he return to government after September – his priority would be reforms focusing on the needs of victims.

There has also been a string of justice legislation introduced, and passed, during the past three years, including electoral law reform, and family violence and sexual violence legislation.

National’s Mark Mitchell backed the Government’s continuation of National’s work on sexual violence reform, but said he disagreed with most of its legislative priorities.

“This Government’s programme is hardly revolutionary work that will impact the lives of our most vulnerable, and nothing that will protect victims, give new powers for justice services to stop crime, and work with offenders to rehabilitate them.”

National Party justice spokesperson Mark Mitchell says the Government’s criminal justice sector reform has been slow and hardly revolutionary. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Mitchell said prioritising passing a prisoner voting bill over bills on sexual violence and first responders, signalled the rights of prisoners were more important than victims of sexual violence or frontline emergency workers.

Of course, some legislation can hit political snags or encounter technical difficulties that hold up its passage through Parliament – something Mitchell knows can dictate when bills are progressed.

Meanwhile, Borrows is thinking big picture.

When asked for his highlights, aside from starting the reform discussion, he pointed to Corrections’ new five-year strategy Hokai Rangi, which aims to significantly reduce Māori imprisonment rates and address reoffending.

Post-election, he hoped more work would be done to break down silos between government agencies, encouraging justice, health and education to work together effectively.

“Because all their failures end up within the criminal justice sector, and we think that’s pretty barbaric in the 21st century.”

Given the disproportionate representation of Māori in the system, there also needed to be more Māori in decision-making roles across departments and agencies, he said.

While the passing of legislation required the necessary numbers in Parliament, these types of changes required changes to broader mindsets, policy and policy implementation – something Borrows said the next government should be able to achieve, regardless of support partners.

Cross-party consensus?

Other major issues, like climate change and mental health, now had cross-party groups in an effort to gain bipartisan support for policy and lock-in enduring change.

But Borrows said unlike climate change, some did not believe there was a fundamental issue, so building any kind of consensus on how to address the issues was a moot point.

While National spoke a lot about rehabilitation, the party’s broader public rhetoric showed it still believed there were votes to be won from ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric.

“I think when it comes to the safety of the community, and reducing the number of victims, it’s something we should all be working together on.”

When the Opposition was sitting in a good position according to the polls, it likely didn’t see much need to negotiate or compromise. It was unclear whether that would change with new leadership and a drop in the polls.

Mitchell said National’s policy was simple and was what it would bring to government if things change after the September election: “Victims should get justice, criminals should be held accountable for the harm they cause, and offenders should be rehabilitated so they can become contributing members of our society”.

Little also expressed his desire to take the politics out of criminal justice reform.

“I think when it comes to the safety of the community, and reducing the number of victims, it’s something we should all be working together on.”

But he wasn’t holding his breath.

A changing tide

It seems the politics won’t be removed from this issue anytime soon, but the tide of public opinion does appear to be turning.

When Newsroom spoke to Little for this article, the bill to reinstate voting rights to some prisoners was making its way through the House (it passed despite some hairy moments). Little said out of about 2500 submissions the majority of people supported the bill. They didn’t understand how removing a prisoner’s right to vote would help with their rehabilitation.

Meanwhile, New Zealand recently saw its biggest protest in over 100 years in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

This type of movement had the ability to help achieve enduring reform, Little said,

Borrows also believed the debate was maturing and moving in the right direction, but the proof would come on election day.

“People are all alone in the polling booth, and they will vote whichever way they want to,” he said.

Even with a change in public opinion, it’s unlikely the pace of reform will pick up significantly. And definitely don’t expect new policy before the election.

For now, as Borrows said, it is a game of wait and see.

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