Pilot community panel tackles low-level crime

A trial which allows people in the community to punish criminals has cut reoffending rates and is being rolled out nationwide.

Community justice panels, a collaboration between police and Christchurch Community Law, were first trialled in the southern city in 2011 as an alternative to the courts for low-level offending.

Community members meet offenders, discuss their cases and put in place sanctions, fines or community work.

Senior Sergeant Roy Appley said the pilot had been "absolutely successful", with fewer than 20 per cent of criminals reoffending, compared with 50 per cent in the court system. Work on justice panels in Wellington, Auckland and Napier was "well under way", he said.

A criminal charge is not entered when police refer offenders to the panels but participants are sent back to court if they fail to co-operate.

Charges dealt with include assault, shoplifting, theft, wilful damage, and alcohol or drug-related offending.

The panels were "absolutely not a soft option" for offenders, Mr Appley said.

"The panels hold people to account for the offence committed, as well as making sure any harm to the victim is repaired, and providing some education to the offender to try and stop that offending happening again."

Community justice panels co-ordinator Chris Nolan said the panels were about "digging down" to the underlying causes of offending.

"For example, if it's drugs and alcohol motivated, to provide some support around those issues, which in turn should mean they no longer offend for that reason," he said.

"In my view, people don't just wake up one day and decide to commit crime.

"There's usually things bubbling away under the surface that need to be addressed." As well as achieving a drop in recidivism, the panels had an 89 per cent completion rate for fines and community work, compared with only 30 per cent within the courts, Mr Nolan said.

The panels have been based at Nga Hau e Wha Marae in Christchurch but a second panel was launched last week in Riccarton to meet demand.

The pilot panel has dealt with 307 cases since it began and with the new panel starting Mr Nolan expected that number to significantly increase.

Mr Appley said the justice panels were "definitely a time and money saver for police". Fairfax NZ

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