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The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Andrew Little

On The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Andrew Little

Justice Minister Andrew Little says the government needs to look at the way bail laws are being applied. He says there are too many people in jail that needn’t be there, and inconsistency in judges’ rulings may be a reason.

Little says there will be a specific target for reducing Maori offending, but can’t say yet what it will be. The previous government aimed to cut the rate of maori offending by 25% by 2025.

As Treaty Negotiations minister, Little says negotiating a Treaty deal for Ngaphui will be a joint effort of dealing with the iwi as a whole, and individual hapu.

Lisa Owen: Andrew Little has had a bigger year than most. He started 2017 as Labour’s leader, hoping that John Key’s departure could leave the door open for him to win the election, but as his polling dropped lower and his new deputy’s went higher, he made what could turn out to be his bravest and best political decision. It resulted in his position as a senior government minister with a bunch of hefty portfolios. Andrew Little joins me now. Good morning, Minister.
Andrew Little: Good morning, Lisa.
As part of the Justice and Corrections portfolios, Labour wants to lower the prison population – 30% over 15 years. But given all the projections – our growing population, all the rest of it – the only way it seems that you might be able to achieve that is by letting a bunch of people out. So are you going to do that?
No, and we’re going to approach this very sensibly. We’ve come into office and we’ve been faced with these projections that show that if we do nothing, then the prison population will increase by roughly 50% over the next 10 years alone, so going from just over 10,500 now to nearly 15,000 by 2028, so we have to do something. When we look at what some of the problems are, you’ve got people who, but for doing addiction courses or counselling in prison, would be eligible for parole. They can’t get the courses because they’re not resourced to provide them, and so those people don’t get parole. They could be out doing productive, constructive things, but they’re banged up in prison. We’ve got another problem too, which is the number of people who are in prison with mental health problems, with literacy problems that aren’t getting the support to overcome those issues. They could, with the support and help, be released once they’ve been through those sorts of remedial measures, and we can reduce the prison population. It’s actually not that hard if we choose to resource it properly.
Okay. So do you think that everybody in jail currently should be in jail?
Look, there are going to be hardened criminals who are a threat and a risk to society; they should be there for their criminal offending. There’s a whole chunk of other people we know who are there because of other circumstances that have driven their criminal offending that, with a bit of help – mental health issues, addiction counselling, literacy issues, other personal issues – if they were properly assisted, helped, got over their problems and prepared for re-entry back into society, A) we can avoid their reoffending; B) we can set them up as productive citizens again.
So in Labour’s policy during the campaign, which is still up online, it says, “For less serious offending where alternatives to prison should be available, short-term prison sentences are still too common.” So are judges being too conservative with their sentencing and risk-averse in sending some people to jail that, in your view, shouldn’t be going?
Well, our sentencing laws dictate the factors they have to take into account, and they’re doing that, and they’re sentencing more people to prison. I think what’s happening is we’re not only sending more people to prison; we’re sending them there for longer, so their sentences actually being served are longer. And even though people will hit their parole eligibility date, because they haven’t done things that the court expects them to do and their parole board expects them to do, they can’t be released, so they’re serving way beyond their parole eligibility date because the resources aren’t there to do those remedial things. If we can resource some of that stuff more effectively, we can actually get more people out in a better state and less likely to reoffend.
All the ministry advice says part of the reason you’ve got this great big bottleneck in the prison is bail – bail was tightened up. Kelvin Davis has said that he thinks you need to look at the bail laws. Are you going to do that?
Well, we need to look at the way bail is being handled and managed both by the courts and by the prison system. Whether or not the laws need to change, I think, you know, we can have a look at that. I suspect it’s more about the way it’s being applied and enforced as opposed to whether there’s a problem with the law.
What do you mean by that? They’re being too conservative in denying people bail?
Yeah, I mean, there has been public outcry about people who have committed an offence, been charged, they’ve been let go on bail and remanded at large and then they reoffend, and I think the public expectation is we’ve got to tighten up on that, so we’ve done the tightening up. I think what’s happened is that we have now remanded in prison a whole bunch of people whose risk or threat to society actually isn’t that great. The other problem we’ve now got is—
So hang on. Sorry, Minister. That means you’re looking to change that, then; you do think that some people are unnecessarily denied bail, then.
Whether or not you have to change the law, I’m not convinced we do, but what we do have to do is get some consistency in those decisions. Here’s another—
You need to change attitudes, then. If you’re saying that some people shouldn’t be, you need to change the way that judges are administering the bail law if you think there are some people in there who should be allowed out, that they’re not that much of a risk, as you just said.
Yeah, I think you need some consistency. I know the previous Labour government had at the end of its term put in place a sentencing council, which was all about getting some consistency in the decisions that judges make across all the different regions and courthouses. The National government, freshly elected, abandoned that. There is a real merit, I think, to now reconsider putting that sentencing council in place so we get that consistency, because here’s the problem with—
Hang on. Sorry. That suggests that there’s inconsistency, so some judges are being harsher with sentencing and harsher with bail conditions than other judges.
I think when we make these laws and we narrow the discretion of judges, different judges are going to apply it in different ways. That’s just natural, because there aren’t many guidelines established about how you actually apply it in practice. I think the benefit of a sentencing council is that you start to actually get some consistency in those decisions. No question safety of the community is first, but we’ve got to make sure that if we put people in prison for having been charged and not yet convicted of a crime, we’ve got to be reasonable about it. One of the problems we’ve got at the moment, I get letters from families of people who are in prison, they might have been charged and remanded in prison, say, March, April this year, and their trial isn’t until halfway through next year or, in fact, one case I had wasn’t until September next year. So 15 months in jail. They haven’t even been convicted of the crime yet. So I think we’ve got to make sure that we get that balance between community safety and, you know, the real threat that prisoner might pose or offender might pose.
In an ideal world, there’d be fewer people remanded in jail awaiting their day in court?
Yeah, or certainly not being held for 15 months before they actually get in front of a judge and decide whether or not they’re guilty of that particular offence.
So how do you speed that pipeline up? Public defence service, then, who deals with a lot of these people, are you going to give them another chunk of money?
Well, the public defence service are doing a pretty spectacular job at the moment. They’ve got roughly 50% of the cases going to court. But everybody is working within the law as it is at the moment. But without some kind of consistency and guidelines that a sentencing council might provide, they’re doing the best they can, but what we are seeing is this sort of divide opening up between different judges, different courthouses, different parts of the country about how some of those laws are being applied.
Some judges aren’t doing their job properly?
No, I think all the judges are doing a fantastic job. They do the job with the law that they’ve got. They interpret it the way that they see it. But I think it sometimes benefits from, particularly with the district court which is, frankly, processing hundreds of cases a week across dozens and dozens of judges, getting some consistency and some guidelines would be very helpful.
Okay, so, the National government had a target of lowering Maori offending 25% by 2025. Are you going to keep that?
Well, we certainly want to reduce offending across the board. That’s why we—
But the Waitangi Tribunal has ruled on this and said not enough attention’s been paid to this particular aspect. Are you going to keep that target, or are you going to go better?
Yeah, and we’ve said that within reducing the prison population by 30%, we’ve got to fix that overrepresentation of Maori in prison too. So you do that with a strategy that deals with the way we police, actually having a police force that is equipped and resourced to do the good-quality community policing, getting into those communities and actually working with particularly young people to get them off the offending track and then working with the way the corrections system deals with people to stop the reoffending.
Yeah. I understand the philosophy, but will you actually have a hard, fast number that you’re trying to reach? 25% by 2025 was National’s — a reduction.
Yeah, so we’ve got the overarching one about the 30% prison population. So what sits under that will be a bunch of other targets. As we start to work up a plan to deal with that, then we’ll have a bunch of other targets that are about reducing offending.
So you will have a specific target for Maori; you just don’t know what it is at the moment?
Yeah, I think we’ve set the overall target — the 30% reduction in the prison population in 15 years. As we start to put that strategy together, because we’ve, frankly, been blindsided by some of the figures that we’ve seen, the projections for the growth of the prison population if we do nothing else. So we want to make sure that what we do to achieve that target is going to have a meaningful effect.
So you’re undertaking to have a target for Maori, but you just haven’t determined it yet?
We will have a strategy that will deal with criminal offending overall. It will deal with the different prison populations — Maori prison population, Maori offending population. There is a growing number of iwi who want to be involved in that and that project. We want to draw—
I’m still not clear, Minister. Can you just answer this directly? Will there be, actually, a reduction number for Maori offending, like National’s number. Lowering it by 25% was their number. Will you have an actual number?
When you put together a strategy, you put up milestones, and you have those numbers. But we’ve got to do the strategic work with the numbers that we now know informed by the official—
I’ll take it as a yes, but you just don’t have it yet. Okay. All right, Labour in coalition government is going to boost the number of police officers by 1800. So what effect do you think that’s going to have on the prison population?
Well, it should reduce it, because what the benefit of good, effective policing does and well-resourced policing is that they’re a deterrent to offending, because those police officers are in the community, they know the families that are troubled and need help and they can steer focus away from a life of offending. And where there is offending, their presence and their knowledge of the communities means they can intervene to stop the more serious offending.
Yeah, but it doesn’t work like that, because the Ministry of Justice’s own advice in 2016 to the government when they were going to increase by 1000 police officers, it’s estimated that will increase the prison population by 400, and that’s 1000 cops; you’re talking about 1800. So you’re closer to the 350 mark. It actually has reverse effect.
Well, I know that the officials do have this view that—
It’s not just them. JustSpeak also has the same view. Research that they have seen suggests it bumps up the prison population.
Understand that. And there is that view, and it’s a bit like for a hammer, every problem is a nail. For police, every problem is something that needs an arrest and a charge. That is not the type of policing that we are buying into with these additional police officers we want to add to the force. Conversations that Stuart Nash is having with the commissioner of police is all about a style of policing that is a deterrent to offending and early intervention that’s going to reduce offending and therefore reduce the prison population.
Okay. Let’s move on to one of your other portfolios. You’re about to have your second hui with Ngāpuhi over their treaty settlement. Will you settle with the iwi as a whole, or will you consider going hapu by hapu?
The government has set up a negotiation for a settlement that is iwi wide. The Waitangi Tribunal has said in the mandate that the Crown has now recognised it doesn’t pay enough respect to hapu. So the effort I’m putting in at the moment is to get round hapu or taiwhenua, groupings of hapu, to talk about how we make sure that their ambitions and aspirations are properly reflected both in the negotiations and in any settlement. So it is about doing both. I’m confident that we can do both.
Would it be a two-tier deal, then? You settle with the iwi for reparations, and then you negotiate with each hapu for other things, like intellectual property and stuff like that?
I wouldn’t dare start the negotiations with Ngapuhi on this TV programme without having done the spadework first. And that is about getting out. I think what I bring to the role at the moment with a change of government is a fresh pair of eyes, fresh pair of ears, getting out, listening and talking. That’s what I wanted to do, and then at some point there is going to be engagement about setting up a structure for negotiations, getting to a settlement and hopefully do amazing things.
Okay. Well, last time you were in that seat, you were here as Labour leader.
Is it that long ago?
Yep. And you actually look like a weight’s been lifted off your shoulders. Why’s that? Has it?
Well, I assumed a lot more responsibilities and serious responsibilities; I’m a minister of the Crown now and thoroughly enjoying it. It’s been a fascinating year, but I am feeling very good about the responsibilities that Jacinda Ardern has reposed in me and absolutely enjoying being part of this amazing government.
Is the job that you’ve got now in some ways better than the one that you had?
No, I thoroughly enjoyed every minute as leader of the opposition, and I’m sorry it didn’t tell, it didn’t show. That’s a fascinating job in itself, and, look, what’s happened has happened. I stand by every judgement I made about it. I’m thrilled that Labour is leading this new government, a genuine MMP government with New Zealand First and the Greens. We’ve got a great programme ahead of us and great ambitions for this government and for New Zealand, and I’m thrilled to be part of that.
So did you win the election for Labour by making that big decision and stepping down?
Look, there’ll be people with more letters after their name than I have that’ll pore of this.
No, I want to know what you think. I want to know what you think.
Well, I think—
If you’re honest about it.
If you look at what happened and Jacinda’s leadership and what she was able to do within days of me stepping down gave an amazing boost to the Labour Party, she led a blinder of a campaign, and she got us over the line, and because of her political skills after the election, had the personality and the intellectual skills to weave together the coalition government that we’ve got now.
But if you hadn’t sacrificed your own leadership, she wouldn’t have had that opportunity. So are you the hero in this?
Look, I have a very simple philosophy when I think about my role in anything. It’s not all about me. I’m part of a team. I’m part of a group. I’ve had one principal ambition, and that is for Labour to lead the government. I’m very glad that we are. I’m very glad that someone with the skills and talents as Jacinda is leading this government, and this is a government that’s going to do amazing things.
Thanks for joining us this morning, Andrew Little, the minister for almost everything.

Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz

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