Thoughts from the Criminal Justice Summit

The recent Criminal Justice Summit talked about the need for change – especially in terms of engagement with Māori.  But there was little about what that change might actually look like. 

There’s been plenty of media coverage and various opinion pieces following the Criminal Justice Summit last week on the need to reform the criminal justice system.  I was at the Summit too, and my own feelings from it were mixed.  

A lot of the Summit was a ‘talk fest’, but equally a lot of that talk was powerful and needed.  Much of that talk had already been said before – but there were those there who needed to hear it again.  And within the talk there is still a lack of action – but there was certainly a sense that action may be coming.   

Clearly one of the particular challenges that will be faced in reforming the justice system, and something that was a tension within the Summit itself, is engagement with Māori.  

There was a lot of talk about the need for a greater role for iwi and Māori organisations in the justice system and the promise of more of a partnership approach.   But partnerships and better engagement with Māori have been talked about for a long time but haven’t really happened.  

Part of the problem with a call for greater engagement with Māori is that it feels very much like being talked at rather than talked with.   A lot of that is because what is being sought are partnerships and engagement within a system that doesn’t fit comfortably with Māori, is still run by non-Māori, and seeks to achieve goals that haven’t been set by Māori.  For example, Corrections want Māori to deliver them an answer on how to achieve a reduction in reoffending rates – the discussion is never what do iwi and Māori organisations need from Corrections to achieve outcomes like a thriving iwi and healthy whanau.   

To make real change the fundamental starting point for partnership with Māori need to be different this time.  A new type of partnership needs to recognise that the Crown agencies and Māori each have different worldviews, priorities, and aspirations.  Both are equally valid.  To be a real partnership the actions that come from that partnership need to deliver outcomes to both parties.  Those worldviews and aspirations can be complementary and not mutually exclusive.  If we are working towards both we can provide better outcomes across the board. 

Alongside the call for participation of iwi and Māori coming out of the Summit there was very little on how that engagement was to be resourced and what will be done to grow the capacity for Māori to be able to effectively participate.  Without a substantial commitment to resourcing and capacity building the current calls for Māori engagement are almost as problematic a no engagement at all. There is a risk that any failure for Māori to now engage becomes seen as ‘Māori won’t engage’ rather than ‘Māori still can’t’.  It’s vital that the next step comes with a real commitment around resources and capacity building otherwise Māori are being set up as the fall-guy.

The way that resourcing is provided, when it does come, also needs to change.  A real partnership is not one where one party sets the level of resourcing, determines what the priorities are for that resourcing, decides what it is committed to, and then controls how services are provided.  That approach hamstrings the engagement that Māori can have in the system as, amongst other problems, it prevents long-term planning and capacity building.  

To have a real partnership we need to find a way to ensure that those decisions on how priorities are set, and resources managed, are made jointly.   That joint decision-making process needs to be set in the context of the recognising differing objectives for each party.  We also need to find a way to lengthen the timespan for decisions around the commitment of resources so that those decisions don’t continue to be tied to short term timespans – the commitments around resourcing and capacity building need to be closer to 30-year cycles than three.  

No-one of these are easy.  But what came out of the Summit was the message that what is needed are hard decisions and new ways of thinking.  Hopefully we now start exploring what those solutions can look like rather than just about how much they are needed.