As a thoughtful and responsible person who wanted to prevent crime and make the justice system less of a moral failure, former Prime Minister Bill English is an example of those who should be voting ‘yes’ in the upcoming cannabis referendum, says Jess Berentson-Shaw

I sometimes wonder if the quote that Bill English, former Prime Minister, will be best remembered for is his one about prisons.

It’s the one in which he told us that prisons were a moral failure. He said they were a fiscal failure too (but let’s face it if people really cared about the dismal fiscal failure that are prisons, they would have been abolished decades ago).

No, the thing that stood out about that statement, was that Bill English was expressing what many New Zealanders across the political spectrum feel: prisons are a terrible way of preventing crime and preventing reoffending, they hurt all of us, and they are just something we should be doing as little as possible.

He knew prisons don’t prevent much crime, they don’t offer much repair or restoration, for victims or the communities in which crime is committed, and in many cases being sent to prison simply traps people who commit crime and their families, children, into a life of unemployment, ill health, and poverty. And because nothing happens in a vacuum in a society in which we all live together, that failure affects all of us. So yeah, massive bloody moral failure.

Bill is a responsible guy, and he knew, like many of us, that the pragmatic and responsible steps we can take to deal with this failure is to stop crime happening in the first place – that is deal with the upstream conditions that lead to crime.

In the places where we live, learn and work, people need opportunities to meet their goals in life and their goals for their children. From intensive community development, through to education that really works for all kids, stable healthy affordable housing for all families (not just some), good meaningful employment opportunities, with a path to more opportunities and decent wages, wherever people live, supporting families and people who care for kids by releasing them from the toxic stress created by a welfare system that under resources people and traps them into poverty, working with, sharing and devolving decision making to Iwi and hapū. All the sensible things we have known for decades that prevent crime from happening. It also means really comprehensive mental health, relationship, and drug and alcohol services, made to work for the people who use them. All of us, no matter where we live, need to have hope, help from others, and the ability to see a future for ourselves and our kids.

Once crime has happened, that is the time to take steps to ensure meaningful restoration happens, and that people don’t get trapped in the prison system for good. Once people get on the path to prison, it’s like a maze, almost impossible for people to to find their way out. We have a justice system in which victims are not often centred, that does not deliver justice for people without the money and resources to buy it. We have overcrowded prisons, over stretched corrections services, and policy makers who don’t put enough into programmes to help the large number of people who come out of prison find a way back into their community to live a normal life.

So as well as dealing with the upstream conditions that cause crime, we need policy makers to build a justice system with more than one gear. A system that works to restore and repair, to keep people out of prison, and if they do go to prison, services that can help them navigate their way out of the maze.

This election we have an opportunity to make the justice system slightly less of a moral failure
At this election, all of us who can vote have the single biggest opportunity many of us will ever have to do something meaningful to prevent crime in our communities and stop, young people, especially young Māori people getting trapped in the maze of the criminal justice system.

All of us, including Bill English have a chance to do something about the moral failure that is prisons and our justice system by voting to make cannabis legal.

How does making cannabis legal improve our justice system and prevent crime?
By voting yes, we immediately ensure that the many young people who use cannabis, especially young Maori people (who are charged at three times the rate of non-Maori who have a matching history) are not trapped in the maze of the criminal justice system. Instead of being charged and sent down a one way path they can just get on with their life like other young people. A life where they will be able to access more health and support services for their cannabis use, if that is something they need.

By voting yes, in the cannabis referendum we will help release both people and money in our public services and community support services to work more on the upstream conditions that can lead to crime, including on social, education, health and mental health interventions. With cannabis being made legal it will open many more policy and practice avenues to help prevent cannabis use and abuse (and the conditions in which it happens).

By voting yes, we help people working in the justice system. It will release people in the police from spending wasted hours on cannabis related crimes. They can instead focus on the type of supportive community policing that strengthens our communities connections. While people working in the already stretched justice and corrections systems will have less pressure on them to put young people on a pathway they shouldn’t be on.

No matter where you live, what your background, if you use cannabis or don’t touch the stuff, if you vote yes for cannabis law reform it may just be the most effective crime prevention action you will take.

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