It has been a very long time since a New Zealand government has had an agenda of justice sector reform. In truth, justice has been run on the fuel of the agony of the victims of crime. It has been stoked by rage and fear. There has been little that is dispassionate or even that over-used phrase, evidence-based, about justice policy. To be honest, justice policy since about 1990 has been stark raving bonkers.
It has put us out of step with the countries that we generally compare ourselves with – a rate of incarceration one third higher than Australia and nearly double that of Canada. We are ranked 69th highest in the world, and share that approximate space with Mexico, Tunisia and Macau, all countries with significant problems of crime.
It has been a good week for the justice system, a blink of the light of reform in what has been nearly 30 dark years. It started on Monday when Jacinda announced that New Zealand’s wedding present to the Happy Couple would be a $5000 donation to Pillars. Of course I was chuffed, being President of that fine charity. But there is a significance beyond that. Given the government’s focus on children, really the gift could have gone to any children’s charity, of which there are many.
But the government chose a justice charity which aims to change the lives of children who have parents in prison. I do like to think that this choice was a meaningful signal that justice reform is coming. Because Pillars has a strong belief that reforming the prison system can reduce recidivism and the overall harm caused by high prison numbers.
But one swallow does not a summer make. So I was delighted, as an active board member of Canterbury Community Law, that the budget also announced a large funding boost to community law centres around the country. Community Law is often the only place to turn when people cannot pay for lawyers and is a crucial plank of access to justice in Aotearoa.
However, the budget was silent on the big issues, such as the route to reducing recidivism by 30%, the need for court reform to prevent delays and log-jams and the need to instil alternative dispute resolution through the system.
I still worry that the government is vulnerable to the Sensible Sentencing Trust’s regime of tough sentencing. But it needs to show leadership. One way of doing this is to lead a national conversation on what the justice system is for, who should be incarcerated and what indeed is the purpose of incarceration.
I have said most of this before, but I did want to emphasise that, as it were, from small acorns mighty oaks may grow, and that what e have seen this week is a great start. Oh yes, not to mention the review of insurance law and more money for poor Christchurch.
What I can’t abide is National’s campaign of negativity. I know the opposition’s role is to oppose, but when will Simon move beyond the monotonal opposition to everything, to a more nuanced and effective criticism? I don’t think the man has an ounce of humour in him and neither is he a person of vision. My prediction is he won’t last until the next election.
Oh yes, and Neville Cooper of Gloriavale has died. Let’s hope for regime change here – if North Korea can do it, so can Gloriavale. How about a programme of gender equity to start with, and get some of those men doing the laundry?
On that happy note, I will end this instructive discourse.
Dr Liz Gordon began her working life as a university lecturer at Massey and the Canterbury universities. She spent six years as an Alliance MP, before starting her own research company, Pukeko Research. Her work is in the fields of justice, law, education and sociology (poverty and inequality). She is the president of Pillars, a charity that works for the children of prisoners, a prison volunteer, and is on the board of several other organisations. Her mission is to see New Zealand freed from the shackles of neo-liberalism before she dies (hopefully well before!).