The top District Court judge — Chief Judge Taumaunu — announced a new model where the District Court will take practices from specialist courts and apply them to the mainstream criminal system, starting in Hamilton this year.
The new model, Te Ao Mārama, which means “the transition from night to the enlightened world”, reflects the needs of a multicultural Aotearoa. The courtroom experience will be transformed, so that iwi and community groups can come into court, formalities will be toned down and underlying drivers of crime will be identified and addressed. Courts will adopt plain language and there will be greater use of speakers under s 27 Sentencing Act cultural reports. It will have a focus on the spirit of partnership with local iwi and local communities to ensure fairness and relevance across our multicultural society.
“The District Court is to be a place where everyone — whether they are defendants, witnesses, complainants, victims, parties, or whānau — can come to seek justice — regardless of their means or abilities and regardless of their culture or ethnicity, and regardless of who they are or where they are from,” Judge Taumaunu says.
It is no secret that prisons are not only unethical, but also ineffective. Currently, New Zealand is investigating allegations of torture in its prisons. We have a recidivism rate (inmates who reoffend within two years of release) of 60%. This clearly shows that the prison system is ineffective for at over half of its population. Andrew Little said "that 60% re-offending figure — that is a mark of failure of 30 years of criminal justice policy that says 'we'll lock more people up and we'll lock them up for longer’.”
The result of this is a static crime rate but an ever increasing prison population. It makes no logical sense. In trying to help rehabilitate the offenders, rather than locking them away in what many describe as a Criminal University, we can hope to reduce these terrible stats. Currently, there are some focused rehabilitative pathways already in use. Specialist courts “focus on offenders where issues such as addiction, homelessness, cultural disconnection and poor mental health, among others, are driving or contributing to their offending.” But these are only present in certain areas of the country.
There has been concern that these courts lead to ‘post-code justice’ —depending on where you live, the level of justice and support you receive varies greatly due to resources. Chief Judge Taumaunu stated that “the specialist courts share common features of the tailored, community approach pioneered in the Youth Court and its Rangatahi courts, as well as in the Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment courts in Auckland and Waitakere. Now is the time to leverage this progress and apply best practice across the entire District Court.”
This new model is not an easy way out. “It is underpinned by extensive academic and jurisprudential theory. It is not mere trend or fad. It is both evidence-based and legally sound.” In addressing the underlying causes of offending, we can hope to help defendants, and in doing so, reduce reoffending and decrease the prison population.
Te Ao Mārama is still a work in progress; it may be years until it's up and running in every courthouse and there isn't yet a way to measure its success. But Judge Taumaunu is hopeful it will build confidence the justice system and those who encounter it will feel they have been heard and understood.
Although any major reform to the justice system needs to stem from legislative change, such as abolishing three strikes policy, this new model is a very welcome step towards a better Aotearoa.