Community members could replace a judge to deal with "unlimited" offences, police say.
More than 100 offenders - most of whom have committed low-level crimes such as vandalism and shoplifting - have appeared before a panel of three community members to face the repercussions of their crime, as part of a year-long Community Justice Panel (CJP) pilot project.
Police co-ordinator for the CJP project Senior Sergeant Roy Appley said in his 26 years of policing, the CJP was one of the most successful projects he had been involved in.
"It's because it's actually getting to the reasons why people are committing crimes and doing something about it, rather than just punishment. It's got real potential to make a difference in people's lives.
"I think we are unlimited in the type of offending that goes before the panel, and furthermore, we could use the same forum to address problems in the community before offences are committed."
Under the pilot project, police refer low-level offenders to community members whose job it is to deliver justice on behalf of society.
The panel members - of which there is a pool of about 40 volunteers - meet every Wednesday at the Nga Hau e Wha Marae on Pages Rd to consider the case, discuss the crime with the offender, and deliver "sanctions" such as reparation and community service to hold the offender accountable.
Figures released to The Press show 89 per cent of offenders complied with orders set by the community panel members since July 2011.
A 21-year-old mother and first-time offender, who wanted to remain anonymous, said she appeared before the panel in February after she was caught stealing clothes from a store. Part of her sanction was to complete 24 hours of community service at Willowbank Wildlife Reserve. "I loved it and hanging out with the animals. The staff didn't pre-judge me and they trusted me. They knew why I was there but didn't know what I had done.
"It's a good feeling considering you are there under bad circumstances. I made it evident I like it and they asked me to continue helping and I said I would love to."
She was "petrified" after getting arrested, and what to expect at the CJP hearing.
"I thought I would automatically be prejudged, but when I was in there, they were really nice to me. The thing I liked about it most was they were interested in hearing about what my situation was before they wanted to know about the offending. My situation was a bit rough at the time."
Appley said offenders selected for the project were largely first-timers who had committed low-level crimes and admitted guilt.
"Police manage the case in exactly the same way we would with any case, except offenders are held accountable without getting a conviction."
Panel members chose customised "sanctions" for offenders to complete, which was as much about education as it was holding them accountable for their crime.
"People are prepared to share their most intimate matters with strangers and I can only put that down to the non-judgmental environment."
An offender could spend up to an hour in talks with the panel, compared with a few minutes in front of a judge in court.
However, if anything failed, the matter returned to court. Only five per cent of cases have returned to the court system since the trial began. Community Law Canterbury manager Paul O'Neill said while the CJP did not work for everyone, more often than not offenders were approaching it with honesty and a desire to change.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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