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Legal Services Amendment Bill (third reading)

Legal Services Amendment Bill (third reading)
Thursday 30 March 2006
Dr Pita Sharples

There is an expression in te Ao Maori: 'Me he maonga äwhä' which describes a lull in a storm, like a sudden pause in a furious debate.

This Bill, Mr Speaker, returns to the storm of debate that has been in somewhat full lull since the torrid tirades that took place in this House last night to justify locking twelve year-old children up in jail.

The Bill before the House last night promotes a view that the best solution for social dysfunction is punishment and seclusion from society.

The Bill before the House this afternoon is simply a variation on the same theme. Another promo for prison.

The Mäori Party continues to oppose the bill because, although it is branded in such a way as to to address the issue of access to justice, it instead perpetuates the ridiculous "lock 'em up" thinking that has led to the spiralling arrest, conviction, and imprisonment rates that bring international shame to this land.

With this Bill for criminal legal aid, a new test will be introduced that places emphasis on likelihood of imprisonment.

The Bill as reported back from the Select Committee declared that when considering whether or not the applicant be granted legal aid, the Agency must have regard to whether the applicant has any previous conviction; and

- whether the applicant is charged with or convicted of an offence punishable by imprisonment; and

- whether there is a real likelihood that the applicant, if convicted, will be sentenced to imprisonment

As Mr Harawira raised at the second reading, is it right that the Legal Services Agency usurps the role of judge and jury? And what cultural values will be called into play?

Mr Speaker, our key concern with this Bill - as with all Bills in this suite of Law and Order legislation - is that it reinforces and endorses an approach which focuses on imprisonment rather than restoration and healing.

Instead of putting only one system up, perhaps it is time for the administration of legal aid to represent other forms of litigation.

I talked last night about my experiences with restorative justice approaches.

The success of restorative justice is dependent on the ability to produce a climate of reconciliation and healing; together with the acceptance of responsibility that a wrong has been done and needs to be set right.

It is also dependent on an demonstrated and genuine attitude of commitment from all parties present, as well as regular monitoring.

These are strategies than can work - strategies other than increasing the incarceration data. If imprisonment is the only answer, we are forever on a downward path of punishment. There are other systems that Aotearoa could turn to for precedent. For over a thousand years Maori have had their own criminal justice system. A system based on social responsibilities that linked people to their wider community. At the heart of this system was the recognition that everybody had a responsibility to the wider community. Important too, was the belief that all people had a tapu which was not to be abused by others. The Pacific practice of ifoga is similar to marae justice. The offender and whanau take responsibility for the crime, and work to find a point of reconciliation to restore the mana of the victim and their whanau. Another example is the Navaho Indian tribe who have their own police force, courts and prisons. Jurisdiction is shared with the state, but the philosophy and procedure is Navaho. And over the Tasman, Aboriginal Courts and Circle Sentencing Courts are being trialled with the broad aims of reducing Aboriginal over-representation in prisons, and reducing the failure to appear in court; reducing the rates at which court orders are breached.

How do we today, put a stop to the criminal over-representation of Maori in the justice sector? Perhaps part of the answers lies in alternative models to seek restorative justice. The Maori Party has promoted the idea of a cross-party review of prisons and justice, and we will join with Nandor Tanczos and others to be part of this process.

The Maori Party has always believed in the power of the collective, and indeed has called for cross party collaboration on issues such as Methamphetamine (P); on Peak Oil; on addressing family violence; and indeed we issued our own challenge on developing long term community involvement in addressing offending on 15 February 2006.

As I said on that day, the solution to our over-crowded prisons and our excessively high per-capita prison population lies within the community and not in bricks and mortar.

We have to return to our communities - the very essence of our society - for both the short-term solutions to prison over-crowding and for long-term solutions to decrease the incidence of crime in Aotearoa.

That is the big picture.

I noted the release slipped out by Damien O'Connor yesterday that he welcomes the review into the regional prison development costs at Spring Hill and Milburn prisons.

Applying scrutiny to this project is commendable, indeed about time - but how much better it would have been to actually review the whole system, for once and for all.

If not for the Maori Party, perhaps the Minister might have listened to the Salvation Army - an independent monitor of the progress on the health of our nation. Just over a month ago, the Salvation Army called on politicians to show what they called "ethical courage" in signing up to a multi-party accord that would stop the issue of crime and punishment being a political football. In their report on prison and re-offending, the Salvation Army made a number of recommendations including the development of a multi-party agreement to deal with issues of crime and punishment in a non-partisan way. Major Campbell Roberts, Director of The Salvation Army's Social Policy and Parliamentary Unit, commented that'

"Getting tough on crime, longer and longer sentences might sound good but in fact they are 'do nothing' choices". Major Roberts challenges this House with his statement that, and I quote:

"Emotions will always play a part in any discussion of crime and punishment, but our politicians should be leading us beyond rhetoric, not encouraging it.

Let us have reasoned, researched debate about positive ideas. If we don't then as a society we are doomed to spending more and more money on failed holding tanks.

Prisons don't make us safer, they just makes us poorer - in every way. It is time for some principled, courageous leadership to turn prisons around". Now is the time to lead beyond rhetoric, to snap out of the mindset that prison programmes actually combat crime. Finally, I am a firm believer in the view, "E kore tana püweru e mäkü i te pata ua!'

In other words a storm, a shower of rain, does not need to drench the spirit. So although we oppose this Bill, I want to leave the house with three ideas to consider.

The first is that I am aware that the Legal Services Agency has introduced an annual survey of the supply, distribution and assignment to legal aid providers.

The Maori Party believe this will be a valuable monitoring tool for all parties as to what progress we can achieve in turning around the disproportionately high imprisonment rates.

The real measurement of success in this new policy, will be not be in how many legal aid grants are given out, or how much funding legal aid providers receive, but in the downward trends - how many people are prevented from imprisonment, how many offenders are inspired not to reoffend, how many families are saved from the impact of crime.

The second good idea would be to vote down Ron Mark's Bill to build a prison for twelve year olds when it next comes before this House.

And finally, the Maori Party joins with the Green Party and the Salvation Army to call, again, for a cross-party accord on reducing crime.

ENDS


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