3. Navigating a justice minefield

Andrew Little has bold plans to reform the justice system but will face a raft of challenges to push through the changes he wants. Photo: Shane Cowlishaw

COMMENT: Shane Cowlishaw looks at Andrew Little's hopes for fundamental reform to the justice and corrections system and sees a range of political land mines ready to go off under the young Government.

You can almost see a tear in Andrew Little’s eye in the video announcing the Criminal Justice Summit.

Our “American” style criminal justice system is broken, he says, and there are more prisoners, and victims, than ever before.

It’s hard to argue he’s wrong.

I’ve spent the good part of the last decade writing about crime and justice and during that time the prison population has skyrocketed.

While the former Labour Government started the spike in the early 2000s with its bail law changes, National followed on with further tweaks and here we sit, talking about housing prisoners on mattresses in gyms.

Often the genesis of these moves have been horrific crimes that dominate the headlines for years.

But the result has been not only our most dangerous offenders being locked up but also those at the lower end, who end up digging themselves deeper into a criminal lifestyle during their time in prison.

Little says he wants to change that, and likely already knows how he will do it.

Loosening the bail laws and granting parole earlier are likely first options, alongside more housing and counselling support for prisoners upon release.

Fixing institutional problems such as the high rate of Maori incarceration will take longer, but to get there will require an unheard of buy-in from the public.

Politicians have long shied away from this area; being seen as soft on crime can be a death knell for politicians.

The public outcry over brutal crimes is huge, driven by sometimes sensationalised media coverage, and puts the shivers up Beehive residents.

This makes Little’s task almost impossible and to stand any chance he must first build trust.

That kicked off yesterday with the announcement of a justice working group, which will consider what’s working overseas and report back with options.

There will also be a justice summit in Porirua next month where the public will get to have their say.

Little may have already made his mind up on what needs to be done, but he has no choice but to go through the motions.

The only chance such bold reforms have of sticking is if the public buys in.

But there’s also another hurdle, and it’s called New Zealand First.

Little brushed aside questions about whether Labour's coalition partner would support the bold changes he will have to make.

But the reality is he, alongside his fellow Government colleagues, will have a tough hill to climb when the time comes to convince MPs such as Darroch Ball and Clayton Mitchell.

A taster was the brutal withdrawal of support for Little’s preemptive 'three strikes law' repeal, which left him awkwardly hanging.

This may have been partly Little’s fault for getting ahead of himself and allowing public pressure to be put on New Zealand First, but it also highlighted the two parties’ differing views on crime and punishment.

Nurses may be striking and schools crumbling, but Little may have the most difficult job in Government.

Let’s just hope he gets it right.

Who is on the working group?

Chester Borrows

A former police officer, lawyer, and perhaps most importantly, former National MP and Minister for Courts, Borrows is a logical choice to lead the group. His past with the current Opposition will help diffuse the ‘soft on crime’ attacks coming regularly from National, with Borrows already stating he was against the three strikes law but had no choice but to follow along with his party while in power. His thinking aligns with the Government’s and he has called for a rational, evidence-based discussion on the issue while criticising the media for sensationalising coverage of crime.

Dr Jarrod Gilbert

An obvious choice for the panel, Gilbert is unafraid to speak his mind and will bring frank discussion to the table. The Canterbury University academic, who is most well-known for his expertise on gangs, recently said he was unsure whether the public was ready to make the massive changes planned for the justice sector.

Dr Carwyn Jones

A senior law lecturer at Victoria University, Jones will be an important voice for Maori in the group. With high Maori incarceration rates, one of the most significant pieces of the justice puzzle is addressing the difficult issue. Jones is of Ngāti Kahungunu descent and his research and teaching is focused on legal issues affecting Maori and indigenous peoples.

Ruth Money

Likely to be the most controversial appointment to the group, Money is known for her work with the Sensible Sentencing Trust. No longer with the organisation, Money is now an independent victims' advocate and will bring an important, alternative view to the debate. Money is in agreement that justice reform is needed and Little said she was instrumental in setting up a meeting between himself and the parents of murdered teenager Christie Marceau.

Julia Whaipooti

A strong, young voice in the often stuffy world of justice reform, Whaipooti brings a youth viewpoint to the group. Heavily involved in the group JustSpeak, she is currently a board member for the advocacy group and has been involved in the community law movement for several years. Whaipooti will also be an important voice for Maori in the group.

Dr Warren Young

Covering off the legal and police angles, Young is currently the general manager of the Independent Police Conduct Authority. He was also deputy president of the Law Commission for seven years and in charge of the Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Group at the Ministry of Justice.

Professor Tony Ward

The adequacy of mental health care in prisons is of huge debate, with most of the people locked up suffering from some sort of issue. To address this the Government has shoulder-tapped professor Tony Ward, a professor of clinical psychology at Victoria University. Having worked in the clinical and forensic field since 1987, he was formerly director of the Kia Marma Sexual Offenders’ Unit at Rolleston Prison.

Professor Tracey McIntosh

Another strong Maori perspective for the group, McIntosh is of Tūhoe descent and is a professor of indigenous studies at the University of Auckland. Most recently she has focused her research on Maori incarceration, gangs and poverty. McIntosh has experience working on similar government working groups, having served as co-chair of the Children’s Commissioner’s Expert Advisory Group on Solutions to Child Poverty in 2012.