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Racism: You Have to Face it to Fix It

Racism exists within Criminal Justice System – But You Have to Face it to Fix It – Rethinking

“There is clear evidence that personal racism and structural discrimination exists within our criminal justice system” Kim Workman, Spokesperson for Rethinking Crime and Punishment told an audience at the Human Rights Commission Diversity Forum, held at Te Papa.

“But you have to face it to fix it. The UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination asked the New Zealand government in 2005 and 2007 to address issues of ethnic over-representation in the system. The 2007 recommendation called for research on the extent to which the over-representation of Māori could be due to racial bias in arrests, prosecutions and sentences. In 2013, it urged the NZ government to intensify its efforts. We can no longer ignore this issue.”

“We need to understand that providing culturally responsive initiatives such as Rangatahi Youth Courts and Maori Focus Units, commendable as they are, do not address the fundamental and growing disparity between Maori and non-Maori in the criminal justice system.

“You can’t face it without data, and you can’t fix it without courage. If we can determine what is happening, and in what part of the criminal justice sector, we may be able to introduce policies, processes or legislation to counter it. I am reluctantly coming to the view that agencies won’t invest in the research, because they know what they are likely to find.”

“One of the hallmarks of the “get tough” movement over the past three decades has been the lack of evaluation regarding both the potential and actual effectiveness of harsh criminal justice sanctions in controlling crime. Typically, when new punitive sentencing legislation is enacted there is little funding or attention devoted to assessing its likely effects, both intended and unintended.”

Mr Workman recommended that new and existing legislation be subject to a Racial Impact Statement, (similar to a regulatory impact statement) which would identify the unintended consequences of a new initiative or legislative proposal on ethnic over-representation, and consider alternatives that enhance public safety, without creating additional racial disparity within the criminal justice system.

“Racial Impact Statements” are being used to positive effect in the USA” he said. “While proposed changes in sentencing policies are the most obvious decision-making point at which unwarranted racial disparities might emerge, a host of policy decisions at other stages of the criminal justice system can affect the racial/ethnic demographics of the offender population as well. These include adjustments to sentencing guidelines, mandatory sentencing, and other policies that affect length of stay in prison, parole release and revocation policies, and “early” release mechanisms, such as participation in drug treatment or other programs.”


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