'A Vessel of Tears': Grief and colonialism at the heart of criminal justice experience, report says

The grief of victims who find no justice and the generational effects of colonisation two of the main findings of a report into the failings of the criminal justice system.
MURRAY WILSON/STUFF
The grief of victims who find no justice and the generational effects of colonisation two of the main findings of a report into the failings of the criminal justice system.

Grief and colonisation sit at the heart of a criminal justice system that must change, a Government report has found.

The report, He Waka Roimata or A Vessel of Tears, was released on Sunday and makes a case for transformation of a criminal justice system "clearly not working".

"Some of what we heard was confronting; some has been more optimistic. Without doubt, the clearest call we heard is the call for change," it says.

The report was produced by the Government-appointed Te Uepū pai i te Ora - Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group after more than 220 public meetings nationwide. 

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Māori make up 51 per cent of the prison population, but 16 per cent of the general population. Many who spoke to Te Uepū pai i te Ora - Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group said this was due to colonisation, which caused generational trauma and forced a system upon Māori.
MURRAY WILSON/STUFF
Māori make up 51 per cent of the prison population, but 16 per cent of the general population. Many who spoke to Te Uepū pai i te Ora - Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group said this was due to colonisation, which caused generational trauma and forced a system upon Māori.

"Among these conversations the overwhelming emotion we encountered is one of grief" it reads.

"We heard the effects of colonisation undermine, disenfranchise and conspire to trap Māori in the criminal justice system and that racism is embedded in every part of it."

Major problems identified by the panel of nine were: victims of crime feeling unheard and re-victimised; the enormity of family violence; a punishment-focused system that neglects rehabilitation; and a lack of support for mental distress.

Alongside comments and pragmatic suggestions from people heard, the report notes corresponding statistics: one in five adult women experience family violence; Māori making up 51 per cent of the prison population (but 16 per cent of the general population); and 43 per cent of people who leave prison are back there within two years.

The group's chairman, former MP Chester Burrows, said they heard from people who were victims, offenders, and those providing services to communities affected by criminal justice. 

"We're hearing that many victims are left with a sense that justice has not been done. People are feeling let down at their most vulnerable time," he said.

"And for Māori the legacy of colonisation comes in many forms, many of them with tragic consequences, as is the case in all colonised countries where indigenous peoples are over-represented in prison.

"This legacy is actually a gross unfairness and something we should not tolerate in New Zealand."

The solutions already existed, he said. A second report from the group, due to be released in late-2019, would provide specific recommendations for reforms, which the Government may act on.

Justice Minister Andrew Little said the report demonstrated an appetite for enduring transformation of the justice system.

"The report provides sober reading. There are many stories and examples shared by victims, families, offenders and organisations that are upsetting, especially those that demonstrate failings in the system that could be avoided through simple, early and appropriate interventions."

A lack of support for mental distress is a major issue within the criminal justice system, according to a report released Sunday.
MARTIN DE RUYTER/STUFF
A lack of support for mental distress is a major issue within the criminal justice system, according to a report released Sunday.

Advocate group JustSpeak director Tania Sawicki Mead said the report showed politicians needed to agree the justice system was broken and a "tough on crime" approach had failed. 

"The justice system has failed Māori for generations and the government must immediately make the changes recommended in the report and prioritise voices, experiences and solutions from Māori whānau, hapu and iwi."

Urgent action was to required to avoid the same report being written in 30 years time, she said. 

Former MP Chester Burrows is chairman of Te Uepū pai i te Ora - Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group.
HAGEN HOPKINS/GETTY
Former MP Chester Burrows is chairman of Te Uepū pai i te Ora - Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group.

WHAT PEOPLE SAID

"If we [small business owners] were white, we would have been treated differently. It is as if our lives don't matter." - Manukau

"I have been burgled three times and know who did it; but I don't want to report it because I don't want them to go to prison ... so I don't know what to do." - Waikato

"Most victims don't want strong retribution – just want to know someone has been held to account and that it won't happen again." - Canterbury

"Change the layout of the courtroom so the victims don't have to keep coming into contact with offenders." - Otago/Southland

"Maybe the state should pay the reparation to the victim, and then the offender pays back the state. Could there be a consolidated fund?" - West Coast

"The justice system has been used as a blunt tool of colonisation ... it has been used to harm whānau." - East Coast

"[We] need debate about the adversarial system. Currently there is a winner and loser – the truth doesn't matter." - Taranaki/Manawatu

"Young ones coming into remand is just making them join gangs ... Manage them on the outside. It's become a training ground and recruitment area ..." - Northland

Source: He Waka Roimata - Transforming Our Criminal Justice System

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