AUT senior law lecturer Khylee Quince is teaching judges how to address crime in a more Maori way. The self-confessed sci-fi geek has "May the Force Be With You" tattooed on her arm in Maori.

1. Growing up in Mt Roskill, did you always want to be a lawyer?

I decided to be a lawyer at age 11. LA Law was huge on TV and I thought it looked glamorous, which is embarrassing now. My first concrete experience of a justice process was as a teenager watching members of my Te Roroa whanau give evidence for our Waitangi Tribunal claim. Hearing the story of our people and the injustices done was a real eye-opener. People I'd known as just the local farmer or bus driver had been taught to recall this century and a half of knowledge for when the time would come to tell it.

2. Why did you decide to teach law at the University of Auckland?

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I practised law for a couple of years but got lured back to academia by my old teacher Nin Tomas. In the 90s very few Maori did professional degrees and they tended to leave that identity at the door. Our vision was to find a way to be both Maori and a lawyer. So my teaching practice is essentially Maori at its core. It's about relationships and accessibility. My students are my children. I call them my "work kids". I know their families, I know about their lives, they come around home, we socialise together. Some of my colleagues think it's weird but I love it.

3. Why did you shift universities to AUT?

The fact AUT opened a Manukau campus is huge for Maori and Pasifika students from low decile schools. They should be entitled to get a professional degree in their own community. The next step is to change the curriculum to reflect the legal issues affecting those communities, like those trucks that prey on poor people by going round selling household goods at exorbitant lending rates.

4. You specialise in criminal law. What would you like to see change?

Only a tiny number of Maori lawyers work in criminal law. Perhaps because it's too painful, too close to home. My goal is to get the law to respond better to us as Maori. Criminal law is very much based on the individual who did a bad thing. In tikanga Maori, offending is seen as a group-based behaviour in terms of responsibility for the behaviour and paying for it. Processes like restorative justice are more Maori-friendly.

5. Fifty per cent of prisoners in New Zealand are Maori, yet Maori are only 15 per cent of the population. How has this happened?

Maori had nearly full employment for 20 odd years after the war but a disruption of healthy Maori cultural identity occurred as they moved to new state housing developments in the cities. That was compounded by the selling off of state assets in the 80s which saw tens of thousands of Maori lose state-sector jobs like the railways and the post office. That began the cycle of intergenerational unemployment and poverty.

6. Does the justice system itself contribute to these numbers?

Yes. The system operates as a process of attrition so the vast majority of people that commit crimes get filtered out. Unconscious bias means we're more likely to give the benefit of the doubt to people that look and sound and dress like us. So if the decision-makers aren't Maori, you're more likely to get dragged into the system.

7. So is getting more Maori police officers and judges and corrections officers the answer?

It's bigger than that. What we've learned from the police example is that changing the way you police makes a bigger difference than simply having more Maori police. The community policing model is more effective because it's much closer to a Maori cultural model. A good example was the Kawerau siege. Relationships are everything in that situation. The officer was able to completely defuse that situation because the boy knew him and asked for him.

8. What more can be done to improve our criminal justice system?

At sentencing, judges will usually have a probation report and maybe a psychologist's report. One of the big strategies we're working on this year is getting judges to consider the wider picture through a cultural report provided by a lay advocate who represents the wider family and can give context. Seventy per cent of offenders come from a care and protection background. I met an 18-year old a few weeks ago who'd been in 60 CYF placements since he was 5. He lived his life out of two black plastic rubbish bags that he had ready to go at any given time. Knowing that background will allow judges to tailor more effective interventions. Judge James Johnston in Porirua made a great decision last week where he kept a young man with that kind of background in the community with a very specific plan for him. That's whanau ora, joining up a whole lot of separate agencies from education, health, Winz and housing to provide wrap-around social services. There are a growing number of solution-focused or problem-solving courts.

9. Can you give some examples?

My friend Judge Tony Fitzgerald set up a special court for homeless people about five years ago after seeing the same handful of homeless men in court every Monday morning for a raft of minor nuisance offenses relating to homelessness. The Court of New Beginnings gets all the agencies together to put together a clear plan of action for the person that's not punishing them for being homeless. That's a judge-led initiative. He had to get permission from the Chief Judge to do it. There are also drug and alcohol courts and the rangatahi courts in Youth Justice are similar.

10. So instead of handing out punishments, judges should try to address the social problems driving the offending behaviour?

Yes, and that relies on having all the information, whether it's housing, addiction or psychological issues. Judge Fitzgerald says a lack of ID is a common barrier for homeless people to getting bank accounts and benefits. Often the first step will be finding somewhere for them to have a shower and some clothes to wear to have their photo taken. Changing lives is bloody hard work and you have to do it in partnership.

11. You recently hosted a group of district and high court judges on a marae stay in Mangere. How did that go?

It was quite profound how transformative that could be in just three days. I think it's the fourth time they've done it and only 30 judges had chosen to take part. They were very honest about how ignorant they were of tikanga Maori. I was astonished at how fearful they were of allowing "iwi navigators" to assist in their court rooms or letting whanau do a karakia before sentencing. There's a lot of work to be done but it did show me that human beings can change if it's done face to face and with an open mind and heart.

12. You have a tattoo on your forearm. What does it say?

It says 'May the Force Be With You' in Maori. My University of Auckland students know I'm a sci-fi nerd so when I moved to AUT they gifted me a painting with that phrase on it. I loved it so much I had it tattooed on my arm in the style of the Star Wars rolling credits.