You asked us to make the climate emergency, housing, health, and justice reform key election issues. Today, we share the fourth of the top five election questions, chosen by you – our readers – for the political leaders vying for your votes. 

It has long been a cliche that politicians must be “tough on crime”, or least make gestures in that direction, if they are to win over middle New Zealand.

But decades of such stances and policies have done little to reduce reoffending, while the country’s prison population has skyrocketed well past the point of sustainability and racial inequities in the justice system continue to persist.

The Government has made big promises on justice reform, but so far the potential being touted seems to outstrip the actual achievement.

So what will government parties actually do to transform that rhetoric into reality, and what are the alternatives being offered up?

Here is what you wanted us to ask political leaders on the topic, and the solutions they have in mind:

How are you planning to improve New Zealand’s justice system? We hear of inequities, racism, over-long waits for trials, and prisons that lock people up in a room for 23 hours a day.

ACT leader David Seymour: We need to work with offenders who show a willingness to turn their lives around. That means giving prisoners incentives to complete educational programs that will equip them to lead productive lives.

We also need to reduce the administrative barriers that prevent groups such as the Howard League from helping to educate and rehabilitate prisoners.

ACT will reward low-level offenders who complete literacy programs and driver licensing tests, and those who volunteer to teach in these programs, with reduced sentences. 

We will also scrap red tape that stops New Zealanders from volunteering in prison education and rehabilitation programs.


Māori Party co-leaders John Tamihere and Debbie Ngarewa-Packer: There is no such thing as a criminal justice system, it is a criminal punishment system. While there will always be the requirement for punishment, it does not need to be administered as if we were still living in the 1800s in England. For example, 65 percent of all Māori in prison today started that journey with a traffic infringement notice which escalated into non-payment of fines because of the inability to pay. Along came court appointed bailiffs to seize property and court appointed orders on an income that is insufficient anyway. Our criminal punishment system is based on punishing people because they are poor. So lift the benefits of the poor to allow them to at least comply with the compliance costs of a criminal punishment system. 


National leader Judith Collins: National will get the Court system moving by expanding the use of specialist courts like Alcohol and Drug Courts and extend sitting hours and increase use of technology to clear Court backlog.

National will also implement our Meth plan to break the cycle of addiction and crack down on supply and we will establish our Clean Start policy to provide wrap around support for newly released prisoners.  

National will also ensure that our justice system is responsive to mental health and will fund programmes such as the Mental Health Co-Reponses and placing Mental Health nurses in Police Watch Houses to ensure that the frontline policing can better respond to the needs of New Zealanders.


Green Party co-leaders James Shaw and Marama Davidson: Our justice system needs transformative change. We must move away from mass incarceration; ensure we do not militarise the Police; empower by-Māori, for-Māori criminal justice processes; and support legal aid and community law centres. 

We would reform sentencing, bail and parole laws to enable the gradual replacement of most prisons with community-based rehabilitation, including repealing ‘three strikes’. We would properly fund tikanga-based justice solutions to criminal cases, including Te Pae Oranga.  

We would also properly fund social support to those who have caused and experienced harm, and make applications for protection and parenting orders free.


TOP leader Geoff Simmons: TOP’s goal is to bring the prison population down to the OECD average. To achieve this, we will reform remand and three strike laws and invest in alternative sentencing approaches for non-violent offenders, such as restorative justice. Given the cost of prison, this will pay for itself. Any further revenue saved will be reinvested in rehabilitation and to get prisoners ready for reintegration into society. Drug and alcohol rehab, mental health issues, work readiness & housing assistance are on our list. TOP will empower all communities, particularly Maori, to deliver the services that work best for their people.


Labour leader Jacinda Ardern: We are making significant progress to improve our criminal justice system and we want to keep up the momentum of change.

Andrew Little often makes the point that the old ways have failed us. They have resulted in little rehabilitation, more crime, and not enough to support victims. Thirty years of locking more people up for longer has not changed re-offending rates nor made communities safer.

Examples of positive change include the expansion of expansion of therapeutic courts including an expansion of Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment (AODT) Courts to Hamilton, making the AODT courts in Auckland and Waitakere permanent while at the same time continuing the rollout of other therapeutic and specialist courts (Rangitahi, Matariki, New Beginnings, Sexual Violence) over time.

The rollout of 2,300 new police this Parliamentary term is changing the face of modern Policing and making it a more diverse organisation. There are more female officers, Maori, Pasifika and Asian officers, and officers with a wide range of skills and competencies.

We will keep up the momentum of changes in Corrections too –  expanding and strengthening existing rehabilitation programmes; a $128.3 million boost in mental health and addiction services for offenders, $98 million for the creation of Māori Pathways at prisons in Hawke’s Bay and Northland– including the establishment of Whānau Ora navigators at these two prisons.

As far as prison lockdowns are concerned – people in prison were affected, like the rest of society, by measures taken to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Kelvin Davis sought assurances about compliance with the one hour minimum entitlement of daily exercise for prisoners. The review concluded that 96 percent of people in prison nationally had received their minimum entitlement, and often more than one hour of time was received.

Newsroom political reporter Laura Walters gives her assessment of the leaders’ answers:

Labour came into government promising to transform the justice system. And in her response to Newsroom, Jacinda Ardern says “the old ways have failed us”. But any language relating to transformational change has disappeared.

This election, Labour and National have moved further towards the centre, with both putting forward policies regarding the expansion of therapeutic courts, like the Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Court, and extending funding for mental health and addiction services in prisons and the community.

Of course, National has retained some ‘tough on crime’ policies, including those relating to gangs, ‘serious young offenders’, and doing away with the prison population reduction target because it ‘has the wrong focus’. But in Judith Collin’s answers to Newsroom, she highlighted the areas focussed on treatment and rehabilitation.

ACT’s long-standing policy to improve access to practical training and rehabilitation in prisons has been welcomed by a range of political parties and justice advocacy groups in the past, and would help set some people up for a fresh start upon release.

These rehabilitative and treatment programmes are important and will help people within the justice system, but they won’t address the drivers that lead to people being pulled into the justice matrix in the first place.

Recent global discussions about justice show us that treating the symptoms of a broken system is not the same as introducing a broad work programme to transform the model, which has the power to ultimately prevent victimisation and criminalisation. The urgent need for a system overhaul through shifts in culture, policy, law changes and service delivery has been explicitly articulated in recent reports from the government-appointed Te Uepū Hāpai i te Ora, the Hui Māori report, and Waitangi Tribunal findings.

It’s the Green Party, the Māori Party and TOP, who strike to the core of these calls to move away from a punitive system, and towards addressing the underlying drivers of crime.

The Māori Party’s policy recognises poverty is one of those key drivers, and supports increasing benefits – this is in-line with recommendations from the Welfare Expert Advisory Group. The Greens and TOP also promise to empower by-Māori, for-Māori criminal justice processes and services, in recognition of colonisation and the disproportionate representation of Māori in the justice system.

The Greens and TOP have also responded to expert recommendations to directly address the rising prison population by performing the politically difficult task of repealing the quintessential ‘tough on crime’ laws, which have played a pivotal role in New Zealand’s modern mass incarceration.

Here are some stories that you may like to read about New Zealand’s troubled justice system, and the potential solutions:

‘Decolonise the justice system – ‘tinkering’ won’t do’, Laura Walters: “The Government says it wants to transform the justice system, but in the absence of any significant change policy, Newsroom asks advocates, experts and those with lived experience what they believe transformation looks like.”


‘Justice reform slow off the blocks’, Laura Walters: “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.”


‘Some strong messages about justice reform’, Christine McCarthy: “Christine McCarthy looks at some of the parties’ criminal justice policies ahead of the election, and argues open prisons would have a much better shot at prisoner reintegration than our current prison infrastructure.”


‘Bringing justice to injustice’, Mike Munro: “A new, independent Crown body that will have the power to send potential miscarriages of justice back to an appeal court is on track to begin receiving applications.”


*Some party leaders’ answers have been edited for length. New Zealand First and the New Conservatives were invited to take part, but did not provide a response.

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