Justice reform needs a vision – and someone with the guts to speak up for it

By Holly Willson

When Andrew Little launched a wide-ranging review of the justice sector, Hāpaitia Te Oranga Tangata, in 2018, the sixth Labour government signalled they were taking responsibility for the “slide towards an American-style justice system” by taking steps towards “real change”.[1] This system had led to punitive and broken justice policies, the mass incarceration of Māori, and to a society where people were no less safe, supported or protected.

The review was led by Te Uepū Hāpai i te Ora – Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group, chaired by former National Party Minister for Courts Chester Borrows, and comprised justice experts and advocates, including leaders in Māori legal issues, health, sociology and criminology. The group worked tirelessly to consult with communities and gather their stories, experiences and visions for changes to the system and beyond.

The recommendations from the final report, Turuki Turuki! – Move Together, five years ago were clear: the justice system required transformative change. The move towards such changes reflects a process in many ways similar to a transformative justice model. As a model for addressing harm, transformative justice requires people to confront the harm they have inflicted and take accountability for these actions. It requires people to work through steps that restore relationships and communities, centring victims or survivors and their needs. In a broader sense, it also requires confronting the fact that punitive sentencing, increased criminalisation and leaving families to fend for themselves in the face of intergenerational harm does nothing to heal people or restore their lives.

To “move together” and forward in a transformative way, the report recommended changes at several different levels of the justice system. First, to commit to change the report recommended establishing cross-party support and monitoring mechanisms, a common vision and values for statutory purposes across justice sector agencies, and placing power, justice decision-making processes and resources with Māori and community-led initiatives. 

The report also articulates a clear vision for pathways out of harmful cycles to empower and transform. This would see policies targeted at restoring survivors’ needs, autonomy, agency and mana. Mental health and drug use services and systems would be equipped with trauma-informed approaches to assist people with trauma. Funding to address poverty, family violence and social deprivation would be significantly increased. Rehabilitation capacity would be expanded and resourced to address the root of social harms.

The honest confrontation needed to create transformative change, just as in a transformative justice model, requires articulating wrongdoings and engaging in open communication around efforts to work through and address harm. If the government was serious about this model, it would recognise that it had these same obligations. But the Labour government has fallen far short of articulating what is being done and why in justice policy since 2019.[1] 

The total prison population has reduced at a historic rate by just over 20 per cent between 2018 and 2023[2]. But how this has been achieved, why this is significant and what it means moving forward are rarely mentioned by the government. Instead, as Max Harris recently highlighted, the Labour-led government has chosen to quietly and discreetly make changes to the justice system, leaving “a space to be filled by voices wanting longer sentences and harsher responses”.

Skating over the lowering of the prison population and the importance of progressive policies in place to reduce further harm also means the public is likely to overlook the significance of these changes. This is a missed opportunity to highlight the redundancy of prisons and how this system, as Morgan Godfery recently emphasised, sees people serve a lifetime of punishment that ruins their and their families’ lives. The public is left knowing nothing of the reality of the harm caused by incarceration. Instead, the public is given permission to slide backwards to familiar ideas they’ve seen before. Ultimately, broader support for progressive change is disabled.

“Real change” means articulating and communicating what is involved in the steps towards a different criminal justice system. This ignites people’s imagination and belief in change, building support for these policies and how justice outcomes can go so much further. It would demonstrate how we are very realistically able to live in a society where harm is reduced and people are cared for and supported, healed and restored. In other words, it would show that transformative justice is possible.

This kind of “real change” would see Ministers readily and publicly front-foot the case made clear by Te Uepū Hāpai i te Ora: that reducing the prison population creates increased safety. That prisons do so much more harm than they could ever do good. That well-established evidence clearly demonstrates the failings of harsher sentencing. That criminalisation is not inevitable and is all too often a product of racism and discrimination.

“Real change”, then, means not only “having the guts to look honestly”[1] at possible changes but “having the guts” to speak up about them – to lead with a vision, to show what is possible and explain why realising this is important. Without this hard work, only a fraction of the harm can be restored.

[1] Minister of Justice Andrew Little, July 2018, ‘Fixing our broken justice system: first steps’, media release, found at: https://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PA1807/S00111/fixing-our-broken-justice-system-first-steps.htm

[2] You can find these population statistics here: https://www.corrections.govt.nz/resources/statistics/quarterly_prison_statistics

Holly Willson is a researcher and PhD candidate in public policy, currently living between Meanjin (Brisbane) and Tāmaki Makaurau (Auckland). Holly has been a PAPA member since 2020.

This piece was originally published on The Post at this link.