Time for cross-party consensus to transform justice system - Borrows

Former National minister Chester Borrows says it is time parties and government departments come together to untangle the legacy of colonialism. - Photo: RNZ

The head of a group that found racism embedded in every area of the criminal justice system says it's now time for a cross-party consensus to tackle to the issue.

A report released yesterday by Justice Minister Andrew Little's Safe and Effective Justice advisory group looked at the over-representation of Māori in the criminal justice system, which it described as a crisis.

It noted Māori felt a strong sense of disengagement from the system, one they would not have agreed to when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed.

Māori were over-represented as both victims and offenders of crime, with Māori making up 51 percent of the prison.

Chairperson of the government's Safe and Effective Justice advisory group, Chester Borrows, told Morning Report the report highlighted the need for "transformational change" and said any political party would be foolish to disregard the report's contents.

He said the legacy of colonialism had meant Māori entered prison after being socially and economically disenfranchised.

"People tend to think that this is something that is really historic," he said. "In fact, if you take away the economic base of a community and them under-educate them in a foreign language it's not surprising that a few generations down the track they are corralled into the lowest decile suburbs failing in every area of the social sector.

"What we have in New Zealand is people don't really touch the justice system until they've been failed by all those other areas such as health. education, welfare, the economy and employment... We've allowed that to happen. It's a pattern and we've done nothing about, in respect to prisons, in 30 years."

The former National minister said it was now time both political parties and government departments came together to untangle the legacy, so that policy and its implementation reflected one purpose. He said a transformational change in the way government and political opposition looked at justice was key to success.

"Any party would be foolish to disregard this report, which is so comprehensive, I think this is where people in the middle of the political spectrum are. The changes that need to be made are fundamental.

"We have no single driver of the justice sector and yet we've got five different departments who are in it, all measuring themselves against their own KRA, but not with one single goal in mind and that's a ridiculous place to be... If they are not all facing the same thing and heading towards a common goal then they are stuck but they start."

He acknowledged this would be difficult, due to the criminalisation of Māori and a punishment-based focus on the criminal justice system being made political positions at election time. But said the public was now sick of that approach. "It is too important for it to remain political all the time," he said.

The group spoke to hundreds of Māori and non-Māori through the country.

Advisory group advisor, Julia Amua Whaipooti, said often government agencies, filled with mostly non-Māori in leadership, were implementing justice initiatives, with a lot of funding for improving outcomes for Māori in the justice system, but without the cultural understanding, which was why no change was happening.

She said colonialism was still a key issue accounting for why New Zealand had the highest level of incarceration of indigenous population in the world. She said being honest about that as a nation was a start in addressing the contemporary impact of land confiscations and cultural loss.

She said many Māori would not go to the state for help, for example, over a family violence issue, because they saw the state itself as a violent perpetrator of crime and that needed to change.

"That's the reality of what we're hearing. I know Māori know this already, yes, we do need to change this and there is a role for all of us, and challenge whoever our government of the day is to stop politicking this.

"This isn't a political issue and if they read the report they will see the grief in the call for change, so stop kicking it around like a political football because this is people's lives."

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