Students at Whanganui Prison wearing their korowai at the raranga pilot programme graduation ceremony, with tutor Juanita Davis (front centre). Photo / NZME
In the early heady days of the fifth Labour Government, I was seized with optimism about what looked to be upcoming agenda of penal reform. Indeed, I was so enthusiastic that whilst attending the Hāpaitia Te Oranga Tangata criminal justice summit in Porirua, I shook Andrew Little’s hand and wished him all power to his arm in this proposed endeavour to reduce prison numbers, reduce recidivism and to address the asymmetrical negative outcomes for Māori in the criminal justice system.
In August 2008, buoyed by the summit, I wrote an article for e-Tangata titled “The justice summit — and the road from populism to principle”.
Heady days indeed. Encouraged by insights provided by Justice Sir Joe Williams, I then wrote to Andrew Little extolling the virtues of Section 27 of the Sentencing Act and asking for some sort seminar where practitioners like me could work with Ministry of Justice officials, lawyers and judges to determine what a useful s27 report would look like, what the qualifications of writers should be, and what would be fair remuneration.
Curb your enthusiasm, Denis. Populism has an erosive impact on governments and the Labour-led government was not immune to rusting principles.
When I received Little’s answer, or at least the answer drafted by an official, I could almost see Little’s eyes rolling in his head. As far as he was concerned I was over-egging the custard, there was no need for use of the social sciences to explain an offender’s history and current predicament. It seemed that Little’s view was that some old Māori chap or kuia could get up and speak to the judge and share a few words about the offender’s background and the job would be done.
Fast forward to 2023 and then Minister of Justice, Virginia Ruby (Ginny) Andersen, was describing the production of S27′s in deprecatory terms as “something of a cottage industry” and intimating change if re-elected.
I tell you this to demonstrate that there is little insight (no pun intended) on the part of any of the major political parties on how to reduce recidivism and promote rehabilitation.
We are now to have the “Parole (Mandatory Completion of Rehabilitative Programmes) Amendment Bill” likely to be enacted when Parliament resumes.
The perpetrator of the Bill, Act’s Todd Stephenson MP, says it is being introduced to give prisoners a better chance of reintegrating into society and building a better life. That’s a noble intent. The catch is though – and this is a classic ‘Catch-22′ (a paradoxical situation from which an individual cannot escape because of contradictory rules or limitations) – that a prisoner will be required to complete skills and rehabilitation programmes before they will be considered for parole.
Rehabilitative programmes in prison are already hard to access. Prisons are already overcrowded and understaffed, and this situation is about to worsen as the Coalition Government cracks the whip. Floggings will continue until moral improves as it were. It’s a Kafkaesque scenario. Until we depoliticise the criminal justice industrial complex, I’m afraid its going to be “cry my beloved country”.
Denis O’Reilly M Soc P, is a staunch community advocate based in Hawke’s Bay, and a lifetime member of the Black Power.