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Call for more agreement-focused criminal justice debate

JustSpeak and Sensible Sentencing Trust call for more agreement-focused criminal justice debate

JustSpeak, a network of young people working towards a fairer justice system, found some areas of common ground with victims’ lobby group Sensible Sentencing Trust at JustSpeak’s monthly community forum in Wellington last night. Although JustSpeak maintains its disagreement with many of the Sensible Sentencing Trust’s policies, both sides acknowledged that meeting in a consensus-oriented forum was a valuable exercise which allowed the groups to move beyond personality clashes towards engaging with real issues in the criminal justice system.

Sensible Sentencing Trust founder Garth McVicar and member Hadleigh Pedler joined representatives of JustSpeak, Julia Spelman and Max Harris, speaking about what the groups might agree on, and what the groups disagree on – and why. More than 60 people were at the forum and had the opportunity to ask questions challenging the groups to agree on further issues.

The topics covered ranged from the role of victims, sentencing policy, the purpose of prisons, offenders as victims, Māori overrepresentation in our criminal justice system, and the role of the media in framing the justice debate.

Whilst there were noted areas of disagreement, JustSpeak co-chair Max Harris underscored the need to use the collective power of the two groups to address justice issues on which there is agreement.

The groups agreed that:

• Victims’ needs must be addressed in the criminal justice system and have been ignored historically.
• Māori overrepresentation in our prison system is a national tragedy.
• Rehabilitation that is effective ought to be supported.
• Early intervention in criminal behaviour is desirable.
• Mental health issues are a serious concern within our criminal justice system (a point raised in particular by Garth McVicar, who expressed discontent at the current state of prisons being used as “containers” for mental health patients).

McVicar has been a part of New Zealand’s justice debate for over a decade, and has been successful in drawing attention to victims’ issues in the media and the national conversation about justice. JustSpeak has been meeting to host monthly fora, writing papers and reports, and submitting on government policy since mid-2011 after forming as the youth offshoot of Rethinking Crime and Punishment.

On the topic of disagreement, Garth McVicar spoke about supporting the process of debate, and was positive about the fact that a group of young people are meeting to engage with the criminal justice system. He said that he “ultimately wants people to get off the fence” on criminal justice issues.

Both groups resolved that the criminal justice debate in New Zealand would benefit from more attempts by different stakeholders to focus on points of agreement.

“The time of groups talking past each other, or talking loudly over each other, has got to end,” Julia Spelman of JustSpeak said. “The only way to tackle some of the biggest challenges we face in our justice system – around Māori overrepresentation, rehabilitation, and victims’ needs – is for groups to speak up with one voice where that is possible. That is what we were trying to achieve last night.”



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