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Political leadership 'must unify' criminal justice sector stakeholders

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media
Kim Workman
Kim Workman

"There is currently a lack of political leadership in the criminal justice sector", Kim Workman told 350 Australasian Psychiatrists and Psychologists attending a Conference in Wellington on Saturday. We are in danger of having another three years of piecemeal policy, periodic pieces of punitive legislation, all swimming about in search of a cohesive strategy.

In 2007, Ombudsmen Mel Smith talked about the internal contradiction presented by the policy conflict between punishment and rehabilitation, or as he put it, those who are perceived as either 'tough' or 'soft'. We have come some way since then, with the policy discussion focussing more on what is an effective use of our money - and that discussion has more to do with developing effective models of primary crime prevention, social and therapeutic interventions and "what works", than the bifurcation of the criminal justice sector.

Perhaps the most serious risk to stability in the Justice sector, is that current political leadership is intent on reviving the "tough-soft" paradigm, and is actively attempting to set one group of Justice stakeholders against another. In her speech to the 2009 Sensible Sentencing Trust Conference, Police and Corrections Minister Judith Collins proposed that those who chose to work with offenders, implicitly condoned their criminal activity, or had an investment in the status quo:

"We face opposition from people who put the rights of criminals before the safety of the police and public. There are people out there who would rather look out for the country's burglars, thieves, rapists and killers than those who put their lives on the line to uphold the law".

She went on to say:

"those who promote this 'strange morality' can be counted on to speak out in opposition whenever reforms are made to the justice system so it better serves victims rather than offenders."

Given that the speech was delivered to a group of seriously violated and traumatised victims, the tactic turns from being simply a political gambit, to one that represents an effort to convince victims that they have enemies "out there" and who have no interest in their wellbeing.

She did much the same in a speech to the Police Association Annual Conference last Wednesday, when she urged the Police to stand fast against "soft on crime" interest groups.

"The past three years have shown what can be done when the Government backs the police. It doesn't just mean standing behind the decisions police make, and not being swayed by the sorts of soft on crime interest groups, who dominate the media coverage - but are never there when things are going badly".

This statement infers that those people who hold views that favour effective rehabilitation over punishment, are both neglectful of their civic duty, and probably anti-police.

I would challenge the Minister to name these groups who don't support victims, and don't support the Police. Who is on the Minister's list? It's unlikely to be the Salvation Army, even though its 2006 publication, "Beyond the Holding Tank":, and its annual "State of the Nation" reports, are often critical of current criminal justice policy. After all, hundreds of sallies work in the prisons and courts, helping both victims and offenders; they are active with abused families, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and work closely with the Police in adult offender diversion. It can't be Victim Support. They help 60,000 victims a year, and have offices in the Police Station. But that organisation is very clear in its support for the preservation of human rights for offenders as well as victims. Is it the Minister's own Auckland Diocese Anglican Church? Can't be. This year it published a report by its Auckland Diocesan Prison Task Group, calling for prison reform, and noting that for Christians, the message is about repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation rather than retribution and punishment. But Anglican Care, which supports abused families, families in poverty, and assists both victims and the Police on a daily basis, are always there when they are wanted. Perhaps it's Prison Fellowship or the 3000 church based volunteers, who go into the prisons weekly, ministering to offenders. Probably not. After all they have won international awards for their restorative justice work, which includes victims. They also, help the Police when required with recently released prisoners who need accommodation and support. Is it Rethinking Crime and Punishment, whose representatives have worked closely with the Police on school crime reduction strategies, and recently featured positive stories in its newsletter about Police alternative dispositions and pre-charge warnings. Or the Community Law Centres, who advocate for prisoners' rights, and who in Canterbury, are in partnership with the Police on a community justice project?

In my view, the groups she talks about exist only in her mind. It is yet another manifestation of the 'bad guys vs the good guys' syndrome - a clumsy attempt to persuade the public that those who advocate rehabilitation and effective interventions, are anti-establishment, anti-victim, and anti-police. The good guys are those who favour suppression, control and imprisonment, regardless of what the evidence tells us.

Attempts to discredit groups of this kind has the potential harden the views of victims and the Police toward the very groups that are able and willing to help in times of trouble.

What is needed at this time, is a Minister of Justice who is capable of working collaboratively with the various factions within the criminal justice sector. We don't need a political leader who seeks to divide us. People who support both victims and offenders, don't suffer from some "strange morality". They do so because they understand that when Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, he changed the definition of "neighbour' from someone who lives next door and is of the same ethnic background and social status, to someone who needs help.

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