logo Practical Dreamers

There has to be
a better way!

Ken Russell

Week by week our Parish Bulletin includes an article on a current issue,
generally prepared by our Superintendent, the Revd Ken Russell.
On two Sundays this month  (March 2004)  the theme has been the inadequacy
of  "get tough with crime"  as a response to certain social problems.
These two items are reprinted here.


  Sooner or later the true cost of the popular "get tough with crime" campaign was going to be revealed. This week it was.

Justice Minister, Phil Goff, announced that by 2010, only 6 yrs away, 7400 of our fellow Kiwis are expected to be in jail - 1300 more than at present, which is an increase of about 21%.

That is a staggering statistic, and as though the figures are not bad enough, the public is told what that will mean in new prisons to be built.  There are three to be completed within seven years - at Napha, Northland ( already under construction), a women's prison in South Auckland, and a further men's prison closer to home near Milton.  And no mention of demolishing Mt Eden in Auckland, that survivor from the medieval fortress mentality, condemned by every international expert who sees it as being as bad as anything still in use in the western world.

Something must be eating away at Phil Goff's vitals.  As a younger MP he was among the most liberal, making no secret of his abhorrence of imprisonment as a means of rehabilitation.  Now he finds himself in the hot seat, having to carry the can for overwhelming public demand for the Government to fashion a harsher punishment regime, and lock more criminals up.

Rather lamely, he cites the prison construction programme as evidence the policy is working.  But who is he trying to fool?  Longer prison terms can only be justified if it can be shown to be deterring offenders.  Mr Goff's own evidence shows it is not.  It is failing big-time, and unless some better way of dealing with community wrongdoing is found, the number of people sent to prison, for longer, and the need for ever more prisons to accommodate them, will just go on rising.  It is a bleak outlook.

Surely there is a better way.  There has to be.

Politically, however, there is little joy for those who, like Phil Goff in his younger days, are prepared to champion social reform and attention to the root causes of crime.  You don't get into Parliament today by promising to bridge the gap between rich and poor, privileged and underprivileged.  Listen to talkback radio, take on board the crass, simplistic, totally punitive approach to crime and punishment that currently dominates popular opinion, and the surrender of the present Government to calls for a harder, tougher line is explained, if not excused.

The rising culture of this country is not pretty.  I saw the latter part of Thursday's drama in Moray Place and it frightened me.  A young guy in a supermarket had apparently been trying to buy liquor, but having all the signs of disorientation he was refused.  He whipped out a gun (those close said it was clearly a toy gun) and feigned to shoot himself in the mouth.  Outside the store he made lunging movements with the gun.  The situation got people worried and a number of cellphones called the police, who were on hand in very quick time, clad in bulletproof vests.

The guy was assailed by barked commands to lie face down on the pavement.  A police dog straddled him. The pathetic young offender was disarmed, cuffed, and taken away, totally bemused.  In terms of the force used, it was overkill, but it's easy to be wise after an event.

I have no criticism of the police.  A possibly dangerous situation was defused.  No harm was done to the young guy.  Someone in the crowd conjectured he was a mental health patient minus his medication.  Or maybe a low–performing youth who can't hold down a job and can't handle liquor.  But dollars to doughnuts he will end up in prison, where he has probably been before, and in due course will come out again as confused and lost as ever.

A society that has lost its compassion will inevitably see the solution to all its problems in zero tolerance and imprisonment.  But it never was, and it never will be.


Last week I focused on the plans of the Government to build three new prisons in the next seven years to accommodate the 1300 extra prisoners expected to be in jail by the year 2010.  Instead of agreeing with Justice Minister Phil Goff that this programme is to be welcomed as a sign that the Government is getting on top of prison overcrowding, I ventured a contrary opinion, that it is evidence of failure.  The corrections system already costs $430 million a year, $50,000 for each inmate, and guarantees, not deters, re-offending.  As I said last week - there must be a better way.

On the Radio Church broadcast last Sunday I interviewed two pretty impressive people, Josie Dolan and Jon Bardick.  Josie is on the staff of Presbyterian Support here in Dunedin, and Jon is a Programme Co–Ordinator in our Methodist Mission.  Both of them are restorative justice facilitators, relating to the Courts.

What exactly is “restorative justice"? The textbook answer is . . . .   " Restorative justice involves community-based processes that offer an inclusive way of dealing with offenders and victims of crime through facilitated meetings.  They provide a forum in which offenders can take responsibility for their offending.

Restorative processes empower victims by inviting them into the heart of the criminal justice process.

Victims are given a positive, safe environment in which key questions can be answered, and healing can begin.

These processes focus on accountability, and seek to repair the damage done by crime by applying a practical response, and where fitting, appropriate sanctions.

They also create the possibility of reconciliation through the practice of compassion, healing, mercy and forgiveness.”

Immediately the difference between restorative justice, and what we might call ‘conventional justice,’ is apparent.  In the established system, the victim is often incidental to what happens in the courtroom.  It is as though the Crown is the offended party, and it is the Crown that determines the punishment, or sentence.  In that process, the victim, the one offended against, may take no part in the proceedings, or at best may simply be called upon to give evidence.  Their pain and loss, their deep feelings of indignation, will likely play no part in the trial, verdict, and sentence.  The offender goes to jail for his punishment, and the victim is often left to cope with the aftermath as best he/she can.

In restorative justice ( ‘r j’ ) - the offender having pleaded guilty - the victim and the offender are brought face to face.  The offender is confronted with a real person, his anger, her sense of loss, their deep desire to see justice done.  It is far from an easy option, a soft touch.  It is a hundred times harder for an offender to face a victim, and his/her feelings of hurt or violation, than the administration of justice in an impersonal courtroom.  Many an offender has spoken of how much more emotionally costly, even shaming, are the demands of ‘r j’, and the consequent personal responsibility placed upon him to repair the damage.

Greater recourse to the system of restorative justice would undoubtedly result in lowering the total number of people in prison, but even more important, would help all of us to take crime, and its consequences, much more seriously.  The restorative process takes account of all the factors, not just the breaches of the law.  As the name suggests, the aim of ‘r j’ is not only to punish the offender in the most appropriate way  (prison is often the least appropriate !)  but to restore him and the victim to a right relationship.

Restorative justice is never intended to take the place of the existing system.  The right to plead not guilty to a criminal charge, and to have the charge fairly tried, must remain.  But ‘r j’ - already enshrined in the New Zealand legal process - remains a beacon for greater honesty, a better deal for victims, better outcomes, and with a better hope for what the prayerbook used to call "time for amendment of life."

The Gospel places highest store not on punishment, but restoration of the sinner/offender/criminal — so the Church has a stake in ‘r j’.

The prison system reinforces the old tired view of erring humanity, that he is inherently bad, and does not learn from his mistakes.  Restorative justice takes a different view, that no matter what the evidence against him, humanity can be restored for a better future, with fewer prisons, not more.

It is a MUCH better way.

Ken Russell


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