Justice Minister Andrew Little says the criminal justice system needs to focus more on turning offenders' lives around instead of just locking them up.

And he says the system has to be more flexible to allow Māori-led groups to deal with the crisis of the disproportionate number of Māori people in the system.

Little told the Herald he was not surprised by the damning findings of the report A Vessel of Tears, which was released this morning by the Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group, chaired by former National Party Minister Chester Borrows.

The group considered thousands of people's experiences with the criminal justice system, and its report paints a bleak picture of deep dissatisfaction across all aspects of the system, and the social neglect, poverty and prejudice that drives people to crime.


Little said there was a "justifiable level of anger" from Māori, given how 51 per cent of prisoners are Māori yet they make up only 16 per cent of the population.

He said the system - criticised in the report for being too siloed - needed to be more flexible to enable Māori-led solutions to Māori issues, which could include rolling out the elements of Rangatahi Courts to adult courts.

"What Māori are saying is that they're ready through their communities and organisations to step up and provide solutions. We've got to make sure the system accommodates the solutions."

Borrows said the disproportion of Māori prisoners was only one issue.

"There's a definite racist skew, and not just the over-representation. Studies have found that Māori are more likely to be investigated, more likely to be apprehended, more likely to be prosecuted rather than warned, more likely to get a prison sentence rather than a community-based sentence, and that sentence is more likely to be longer.

"This sort of mantra about one law for all, well, Māori are saying, 'Great, give us some of that'. Because at the moment it isn't one law for all. And we can't turn a blind eye to that."

Little said the system had to lock up people who caused harm, but noted that 61 per cent of prisoners were re-convicted within two years of release.

"Punishment is part of the system, but the more effective part is to stop somebody who is prone to causing harm to not cause harm any more. That's part of the magic equation that we haven't really resolved yet."


He said the Government's $320 million package to tackle family and sexual violence, the $98m to reduce Māori offending, and the $1.9 billion package to improve mental health and addiction services were a good start.

But he added that even more rehabilitation services and changes to legal aid thresholds to improve access to justice would require more money, and would need Cabinet sign-off.

Former National MP Chester Borrows chairs an independent group advising the Government on reforms to the criminal justice system. Photo / Supplied
Former National MP Chester Borrows chairs an independent group advising the Government on reforms to the criminal justice system. Photo / Supplied

Borrows said he didn't expect victims to sympathise with offenders who hurt their loved ones - but the justice system should be able to treat them dispassionately.

"We're asking for understanding and humanity. We're not asking for a soft touch, a light touch. We're just asking for people to use an evidence-base for justice issues.

"There are a lot of reasons why people find themselves on the wrong side of the justice system. Women in prisons, for instance, the vast majority have been sexually abused multiple times.

"You've got to see the triggers that lead people down a certain track."


He and Little agreed that access to rehabilitation was a problem.

Borrows pointed to the case of a man who had pleaded guilty to violent and sexually violent offences. The man had watched his father die in a fight right before his eyes, and had been unsuccessfully asking for help.

"He's been sitting in prison for six months waiting to be sentenced and asking for help, and Corrections says they can't help until he's a sentenced prisoner," Borrows said.

"Is that cruel? Is it inhumane? Is it adherence to good government policy? It's bullshit.

"We've got lots of people sitting in cells who need assistance they can't get because they don't meet Corrections' criteria. It's mad."

Borrows said 95 per cent of prisoners' first contact with the justice system was through driving offences, and greater care and engagement could prevent some of them from heading down a path to criminality.


"We heard one instance where a young boy went to jail for accumulation of driving fines that weren't paid and some other infraction, and he ended up double-bunking with a gang member.

"He then came out with a facial tattoo and a gang affiliation, and the parents were wondering where their kid went to."

The group will now put together a final report with suggested solutions and deliver it to the Government in August.