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International Support for Penal Reform in NZ

22 JANUARY 2019

Yesterday (9am-12.30pm Geneva time 21 January), New Zealand underwent a United Nations review of its human rights. This was the third time that New Zealand has had its human rights reviewed in this way, the previous times being in January 2014 and May 2009.

At the review Hon. Andrew Little acknowledged that New Zealand's justice system is broken, our disgraceful incarceration rates, the disportionate incarceration of Māori, and that 90% of prisoners have a life time diagnosis of a mental health or substance use disorder. He spoke of the need for early intervention to stop intergenerational offending and imprisonment, and referred to the government's Hāpaitia te Oranga Tangata (Safe and Effective Justice) programme as a prime mechanism the government will use to address problems in our criminal justice system.

"The government was right to acknowledge in its report that the disproportionate incarceration of Māori is significant. This is the core reason why NZ has such an embarrassing incarceration rate internationally. Our incarceration rate (of 214 per 100,000 pop.) is higher than Argentina (186), Australia (172), Mexico (164), and the UK (England & Wales) (139). It is twice the incarceration rate of France (104) and more than four times the rate of Japan (41) and Iceland (37)," said Christine McCarthy, spokesperson for the National Coalition of Howard Leagues for Penal Reform.

The other important part of the review is the interactive dialogue which follows the presentation of NZ's report. All member states of the UN are able to make recommendations to NZ during this time, and/or to ask questions about any aspect of NZ's human rights.

Key issues in the area of criminal justice raised by nation states included recommendations to:

(a) prevent discrimination of Māori in the criminal justice system (Indonesia, Ireland, Italy). Ireland more specifically recommended that New Zealand increase the rehabilitative support for Māori prisoners to help address this issue.

(b) address mental health and overcrowding in prisons (United States, Belarus). The United Kingdom also encouraged supporting the findings of the ministerial inquiry into mental health and addiction which refers to prisoners' needs in this area.

(c) make legal aid more readily available, especially for women and Māori (Peru).

(d) make officials in the criminal justice system aware of international standards (Qatar).

(e) raise the Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility (MACR) (Iceland, Montenegro, Serbia).

(f) ensure prison conditions comply with UN minimum standards (Venezuela).

"The Howard League is particularly pleased that recommendations in the area of criminal justice have been made by UN members. Currently New Zealand's Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility (MACR) is 10 years. The UN's Committee on the Rights of the Child has very recently encouraged States to increase their MARC to at least 14 years of age. The recommendation to raise this to a level consistent with international standards by Iceland, Montenegro, and Serbia is important and sends a strong signal to the government. We look forward to legislative changes being made to reflect this. Children should not be prosecuted." McCarthy said.

"We were also particularly pleased that Ireland highlighted increasing rehabilitative support for Māori prisoners. It was also significant that Qatar asked that officials in the criminal justice system be made aware of international standards in this area." she continued. "We often find there appears to be uneven understanding of minimum standards and rights of prisoners and this causes many issues that prisoners raise with us. Greater education of prisoners' rights can only be a positive step. Equally critical is the identification of overcrowding in prisons and the need for better access to mental health care for prisoners by the United States and Belarus. We strongly urge the government to accept these recommendations to improve the current state of New Zealand's criminal justice system."


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