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Restorative approach gets results

Restorative approach gets results

By Julie Edwards

Justice Sentencing 


Thanks to strong leadership and a commitment to reduce the prison population by 30 per cent in 15 years, New Zealand is starting to turn things around.

Victoria’s prison population is at an all time high, with more than 8000 people now behind bars. That’s nearly twice as many as a decade ago, with an annual cost per prisoner of more than $118,000.1 Despite the government spending a billion dollars a year locking people up, close to half will return to prison within two years of release. Surely we can do better.

Jesuit Social Services (JSS) has worked in the justice system for more than 40 years. We are deeply concerned that not enough is being done in Australia to address the underlying causes of offending and that people are returning to the community more damaged – and potentially more damaging – than when they entered detention. We need to investigate other ways to address offending, as well as to divert young people from the justice system before criminal behaviour becomes entrenched.

In April this year, a group of senior JSS staff went to New Zealand to learn about alternative justice approaches and inform our practice and advocacy in Australia. We spoke with judges, advocates, politicians and justice experts about what has worked in the New Zealand context – and what hasn’t.

Victoria shares many challenges with New Zealand – an ageing prison infrastructure, over-representation of Indigenous people, a significant prison population, and high numbers of people on remand. However, New Zealand is starting to turn things around, thanks to strong political leadership and a commitment to reduce the prison population by 30 per cent within 15 years.

The NZ prison population has fallen nearly 10 per cent since a high of 10,645 in March 2018,2 to 9782 in December 2018, and is now on a downward trajectory.

While it’s early days, these recent successes can in part be put down to at least two key initiatives. The first is the High Impact Innovation Programme3 introduced last year, which aims to reduce prisoner numbers, especially those on remand. A cross-agency operation, those in charge say simple changes – based on real-world knowledge of where the system has failed – have made a difference. For example, the appointment of specialised bail advisers and development of a smartphone app to help participants meet their bail conditions has improved accessibility and outcomes for people on bail who often face difficulties like low literacy.

The second initiative we can learn from is the use of restorative practices, especially in relation to young people of Maori and Pasifika backgrounds. We visited the Rangatahi (Maori young people) and Pasifika Youth Courts, which adopt a culturally sensitive approach based on restorative justice principles. These courts were created after two judges visited Australia over a decade ago and observed the operation of Koori Courts.4 Those observations formed the seed for the new courts, with some important enhancements. Culture is integral to the Rangatahi Courts, which are generally presided over by an Indigenous judge. Sittings are held on a Marae, a place of cultural significance to Maori, and elders sit alongside the judge and spend as much, sometimes more, time talking to the young person as the judge. The primary purpose of the court is to supervise the implementation of a plan that follows earlier group conferencing – the group conference, involving victim, offender, family, police and other relevant parties, is integral to the Rangatahi Court approach.

Judges we spoke to also noted the importance of the courts in ensuring access to justice through the approach that ties in with Maori or Pasifiker culture. However, they acknowledged there was also scope for improvement, for example through expanding courts and greater funding for group conferences, especially in regional areas.

JSS uses restorative approaches through group conferencing offered to young people who are before the Victorian Children’s Court and through a trial in the Northern Territory. Evaluations suggest the program helps people understand the impact of their actions on victims, diverts young people from further or more serious offending, and increases victim satisfaction with the criminal justice process. We see strong merit in jurisdictions across Australia moving to an approach where group conferencing is the norm (ie an opt-out model) as we witnessed in New Zealand. We see strong merit in moving to compulsory group conferencing as we witnessed in New Zealand.

We are not arguing that New Zealand’s justice system is superior to Victoria’s, or that it lacks scope for improvement. With Maori accounting for 15 per cent of the population but more than half of prisoners, there is clearly more work to be done in creating a just society. However, our trans-Tasman cousins have recognised the depth of the problems in their justice system and are taking positive steps to address them. It’s time our leaders took a leaf out of their book.n

Julie Edwards is Jesuit Social Services CEO.

1 Department of Justice and Community Safety - Corrections Victoria (2019), "Corrections Statistics: quick reference", Corrections, Prison & Parole.

2 NZ Department of Corrections (2018), "Prison facts and statistics - March 2018", Prison Statistics.

3 NZ Department of Corrections (2018), "Our Strategic Direction", Statement of Intent 2018-2022.

4 The International Institute for the Rights of the Child (2015), “The Rangatahi Court”, p7.

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