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Shifting The Debate - Matt Robson Speech

Hon Matt Robson
Minister for Courts


3 November 2000
Methodist Mission, Auckland
7.00am

Speech notes

Fostering a sensible debate
It's a great pleasure to break bread with such a sizeable company here this morning.

It is a relief every time I get the chance to engage in debate on corrections reform directly with the public.

It's a relief from the destructive parliamentary debate.

It's a relief from media coverage that is all too often poorly informed and destructive.

And it's a relief to have it proven again that many, many people want to get behind the frankly stupid rhetoric about who's tough on crims and who's soft.

Your presence here in such numbers gives the lie to the knee-jerk politicking that dominates this issue on a daily basis.

Okay, I too am a politician. I admit that I'm not immune to the occupational hazard of playing politics.

It's especially tempting to react to provocation from the dumb-it-down duo, Act's Stephen Less-than-Franks and National's Tony Ryall-it-up. Especially now they've been reinforced by Rodney Hide-your-head-in-the-sand.

But I'd like to claim that, for the most part, I run a truly hard line. The hard line of sensible debate. The line of tackling head-on the tough questions of crime and prison issues. The line of creating safe communities.

As I say, politicking is an occupational hazard. So the difficulty of battling shallow, populist arguments with calm and reason is not what really frustrates me.

What does frustrate me is that this obsession with tough-guy poses, this testosterone posturing, takes so much attention and energy away from the real debate, the real issues.

It creates a climate of fear and leads to misinformed public debate

Just a couple of weeks ago you may have seen a headline in the NZ Herald announcing a ‘Get out early’ plan for home detention.

The problem was the headline was wrong. I had not spoken of inmates being released early onto home detention. Neither had anyone else in the story. There was simply no hint of such a thing in the story. Yet ‘Get out early’ was in quote marks.

So the next day the Herald admitted its mistake. In three lines. On page four. Low down.

Perhaps I could persuade my colleague Phil Goff to change the law to make irresponsible debate illegal.

Then we could put these grandstanding politicians and editors in jail and see how tough their talk is!!!

Why we need to move beyond the tough talk
But enough about all that. The trench warfare is much less important than the imperative to move on. We simply must, or the future is very grim for all of us.

Why do I say that? Well, I don't want to bore you by pointing out what you already know, but let me run just a few facts past you:

The present system has failed to respond to victims, and failed to make our communities safe.

Our re-conviction rates are far too high – some of the highest in the world. Up to 80 per cent of prisons inmates re-offend within 24 months. That is an appalling figure.

For more than nine years sentences have increased for more and more offences.

And yet since 1990 violent crime is up by 90%.

The Crimes Amendment Act 1993 increased the maximum penalty for rape and unlawful sexual connection from 14 years to 20 years.

And yet conviction for violent sex offences including rape tripled in number between 1988 and 1996.

So the present system is a dismal failure. The biggest failure is that it has created too many victims.

I take my duty to reverse that failure very seriously.

Restorative Justice – what do we want to achieve?
The push for Restorative Justice is the spearhead for creating a truly effective justice system, and is perhaps the most significant initiative I have introduced since taking office.

The $5 million four-year court-referred Restorative Justice pilot, announced in the Budget, is designed to give victims of crime the option of Restorative Justice within the court system.

It is not the only Restorative Justice initiative. Many extremely hard-working community-based groups have created working Restorative Justice projects around the country. We have Restorative Justice inside prisons. We have out-of-court community panels.

I pay public tribute to the huge efforts many people have made to make these schemes a reality.

And now at last Government has taken the bit between the teeth, and Restorative Justice has reached the very heart of our justice system, in three court-based pilots.

I believe these pilots will be successful, and will open the way for a much broader use of Restorative Justice in New Zealand courts.

Restorative justice responds to the failure of the present system to meet the needs of victims and keep our communities safe.

Restorative justice turns that failure on its head, placing victims at the centre of the process.

A principal objective is to enable victims to participate in the justice system. They get to confront the offender and seek recognition and reparation for the harm they have suffered.

They also contribute to a process to increase the chances of changing the offending behaviour, which may also help them recover from the impact of the offence on their lives.

The second objective of the scheme is to help the sentencing judge. The judge gets a clearer idea of the harm caused to victims and what might help with the future reintegration of the offender

Restorative justice is based on the view that confronting offenders with the real pain and trauma caused by their actions and holding them accountable to the victim in making amends can be a significant catalyst for change in behaviour.

Restorative Justice – how does it work?
Again, I know that many of you are very well informed on Restorative Justice, but let me quickly run through the basics of how it works for those who are relative newcomers.

Essentially, Restorative Justice makes the offender a participant in a conference which gathers around the victim and the victim's family and supporters.

The conference takes place after a guilty plea, but before sentencing. The conference provides information and recommendations to the sentencing Judge.

In prison offenders are shut away from the gaze of those they have harmed. Facing up to the victim, carrying out restitution, attending behaviour modification programmes, being personally accountable and subject to intrusive supervision is often much tougher than a prison term alone.

Restorative Justice - what it's not
Since this Government first brought Restorative Justice into the mainstream debate, there have been many misconceptions about what it is. This is partly because of the poor quality debate I outlined earlier.

A Restorative Justice conference is not an alternative to prison for serious offences that automatically carry a prison sentence. Since the focus of our court-referred pilot is relatively serious offending, most offenders will therefore still receive a sentence of imprisonment.

Restorative Justice will not be a soft option open to an offender who wants to avoid responsibility. A conference will take place only if the victim chooses and only after the offender pleads guilty and agrees to participate.

A conference will not replace the judge in passing sentence. The Judge will continue to sentence in open court, but in light of a report from the conference.

Restorative justice in our courts cannot be applied to every type of case. Domestic violence will not be covered, nor will the most serious violent offences.

Getting it right
Creating a better justice system is the aim. So how will we know if we get it right?

Well, just as Restorative Justice is not a soft option for offenders, the Restorative Justice pilot is not a soft policy option.

Government needs robust information for future decisions and planning. It’s vital we get this right, so testing and evaluation will be rigorous.

The pilot includes funding for a substantial evaluation that will assess whether it has:

 Increased resolution of the effects of crime for victims;

 Increased victim satisfaction with the justice process;

 And reduced the rate of re-offending by offenders.

This will complement the evaluation reports on two adult diversion pilots published in May 1999 and feedback from the Safer Community Council sponsored projects.

The wellspring of Restorative Justice
All that sounds terribly official. But one of the strengths of Restorative Justice is how closely it matches our natural instincts for justice.

Getting people together to sort things out is something we do all the time.

Parents sit down with warring children to seek justice.

In our workplaces, unions often step in to settle disputes within their own "family", and management and workers avoid much unnecessary strife by dealing with transgressions on site.

Maori families gather on marae to settle disputes, aiming to reach a solution that satisfies both sides, that heals the victim and that both punish and reintegrate the offender.

Pacific Island families in New Zealand continue the tradition of what the Samoans call Ifoga [I-fo-nga], where representatives of the offender’s family front up at the victim’s family's home. The head of the family literally offers himself up for justice. He bows on the front lawn, head covered in a fine mat.

In the old days, the victim group literally got to decide whether to take the life offered. That was one option to restore the balance of justice.

Nowadays, the offender’s family demonstrates their shame until the victim group chooses to begin the restorative process.

In the past few weeks I have received enthusiastic backing of Restorative Justice from Pacific Island and Maori players.

First, the Regional Prisons Programme’s Pacific Island Committee, warmly encouraged progress in bringing together families of victims and offenders in order to create real justice.

Pacific communities know how successful group-centred justice can be: Pacific Island inmates already have a lower rate of reoffending than any other group we measure.

Secondly, just this week I paid a return visit to the revolutionary Maori Focus Unit at Rimutaka Prison, north of Wellington.

Inmates told me how reassessing their crimes from the basis of their own culture has turned their heads around. Their only fear, they said, was that whanau and friends awaiting their release might not be able to match the inmates' progress.

Restorative Justice, engaging whanau and supporters in the justice process, is one way we can begin to create a network that will keep released inmates out of prison.

Community involvement in Restorative Justice
Many of you here this morning are integral to the success of this initiative. I know some of you represent groups dedicated to improving the outcomes for victims of crime and to breaking the cycle of criminal offending. I applaud your commitment to your community.

The Court-referred Restorative Justice pilots are responding to the efforts of communities around New Zealand – many of you, I hope, will have the opportunity to be closely involved with the pilot.

The Department for Courts is looking to work with existing and new community providers of Restorative Justice conferences in the three pilot sites. Liaison groups in each area will provide ongoing opportunities for community groups and agencies to be involved.

The pilot requires dedication from agencies, professionals and community groups. There is no doubt that the work involved will be very challenging.

A national liaison committee will include representatives from Police, Community Probation, the Ministry of Justice, the Law Society, the District Court Judiciary and Victim Support. Alongside them will be representatives of the Maori community and Pacific Islands communities, and a Restorative Justice provider representative.

That committee will help develop detailed processes, and the selection and training of facilitators.

The Department for Courts will also seek the advice from local communities through a liaison group including local representatives of the above groups, together with community agencies such as the Safer Community Council and local providers of Restorative Justice conferences.

Shifting the debate and taking action
But if Restorative Justice is to really take off, community involvement needs to reach much wider than involvement of a few representatives.

I opened this speech expressing my strong desire to shift the debate on crime and prison issues throughout the community.

What we need is widespread change, not just talk and not just a few pilots, as influential as I expect they will be.
We need churches to get out of their cathedrals and muck in. The work of organisations like the Mission and the Salvation Army are outstanding models for others to follow. I challenge more churchgoers to take part in this change.

I challenge businesspeople here to help create this shift in beating reoffending.

At last week's Business Forum businesspeople came up to me and encouraged the new direction we are forging in Corrections. They asked me how they could help.

My answer is simple: the devil makes work for idle hands. We need businesspeople to provide work. The Maori Focus Unit inmates I spoke of earlier need support on release. They need a solid life. They need a job to provide the discipline and dignity of work

We need politicians and editors and leader writers to tackle these issues seriously. Some of that already happens, but we need more.

I hear that many of the teachers here are interested in the scope of applying the principles of Restorative Justice in schools. That's great. That's the sort of culture shift we need.

Already community groups offer Restorative Justice approaches within prisons to settle disputes. Their success shows we could do with more of the same.

Restorative Justice brings a whole new dimension to our justice system. That’s good for all of us. We are all vulnerable to crime to a greater or lesser degree.

We want an effective justice system. And we don’t just want it for victims and offenders – we want it for everyone.

And what’s more, many of you can be involved in building that system. That's the challenge I leave you with. Pick up the ball and play your part.

Because if we pull this off, we will all be safer.

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