The government might have saved a lot of time, money and angst if, instead of staging its two-day criminal justice summit last week, it had sent one or two of its key ministers to Kaitaia to see what Te Hiku is doing to stem the scourge of domestic violence (now known as family harm).

Whiria te Muka, a partnership between the police and iwi, promises to address the causes of violence in a way that no government department alone could ever contemplate. It's about a community identifying and resolving the myriad issues that play a part in violence, and not just in its most obvious manifestation, thereby turning off the tap that is feeding this county's burgeoning prison population.

'The promise behind Whiria te Muka lies in its intent to make Te Hiku a safer place, not least for the children who, the way things are going, in many cases will make up the next generation of prison inmates'

It's early days yet, and a little soon to be crowing success, but this initiative holds vastly more promise than anything the government is likely to come up with. And it is something that the government, and other communities, should be watching closely, and preparing to emulate.

No one would argue that this country's prison population does not represent a massive problem, but rational proposals for reducing it aren't thick on the ground.


Minister of Justice Andrew Little continues to insist that the goal of reducing the prison muster by 30 per cent over the next 15 years does not rely upon "going soft" on crime, or making it more difficult for judges to decline bail, although one suspects that the thinking in Wellington hasn't got too far beyond that point so far.

It has to be accepted that reducing the muster cannot be achieved overnight without loosening the bail laws or simply steering those who are not considered a danger to society away from jail, but long-term the answer has to be to address the causes of criminal offending in the first place.

The fundamental problem is not that we are putting too many people behind bars. It's that too many people are committing crime. Resolving the first problem without addressing the second is simply not possible, if for no other reason that a softer approach to dealing with criminals will inevitably be overturned by a future government.

Law and order has always been a happy hunting ground for politicians, and will continue to be so until someone does something to reduce the rate at which people struggle to live within a civilised society.

The promise behind Whiria te Muka lies in its intent to make Te Hiku a safer place, not least for the children who, the way things are going, in many cases will make up the next generation of prison inmates.

Everyone knows that criminal offending has its genesis in a set of social issues such as poverty, lack of education, unemployment, drug and alcohol addiction, an appalling lack of effective mental health services, disconnection from society. It is those issues that must be addressed.

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis clearly understands that. And he was right when he told the summit that the criminal justice system was broken.

He was on thinner ice when he said what was needed was a fundamental change in our approach to the criminal justice system. Certainly more could be done, one imagines, to address the issues that led to an offender's imprisonment while they are behind bars, but the fundamental change needs to take place long before they enter the dock.


We need to change attitudes towards the causes of criminal offending. We need to assume a much greater degree of acceptance of personal responsibility for ourselves and our families, and we have the right to expect much greater effectiveness from government departments that too often are demonstrably inadequate.

If the government is to have any hope of reducing the prison population by 30 per cent over the next 15 years, or even to prevent it from growing further, it needs to up its game in terms of helping those who are already in prison, and statistically highly likely to re-offend when they are released, those who are prime candidates for offending because of their circumstances, and those who are actively breeding the next generation of inmates.
That is what Whiria te Muka is setting out to do in Te Hiku, and therein lies the key to reducing the number of people who are going to jail.

There is much more that the state could do, particularly in terms of mental health services. It is no exaggeration to say that many of those who are in prison are there because of untreated mental health issues. That is not unfixable.

Many are there because of addictions. Not untreatable. Many are there because they have failed to benefit from more than a decade of compulsory education. Not unfixable.

But if the state is letting us down, we are letting ourselves down too. We need to stop making excuses. We need to stop blaming the education system for allowing some children to "fall through the cracks". We need to stop blaming anyone and everyone but ourselves for everything that is wrong, and start addressing those issues within our own families. We need to set higher standards for acceptable behaviour.

We need to reinstate the family as the cornerstone of society, although that horse has probably bolted. But even if the nuclear family is struggling to survive, we need to somehow restore the philosophy that children have a special place in society.

Every child needs to be loved, to be fed, clothed, educated, given roots and wings. Every child needs to feel secure, and to know that they are part of a family, a community, a society that values and will protect them.

Children who grow up in that environment are unlikely to end up in jail.

At its simplest, this country's prison muster is a symptom of the failure of families, and it is families that are the focus for Whiria te Muka.

Haami Piripi told Northland Age readers last week that children were at the heart of pre-European Maori society, that men played a leading role in childcare, that children were not struck and family violence was unknown. Some will no doubt dispute that, but his vision, of restoring children to their special place in society, is one that we should all support.

Mr Piripi talked about a rising tide of consciousness, and if Whiria te Muka can achieve that, every one of us will have cause to be grateful. Violence is not the sole preserve of Maori, here or anywhere else, but the vision behind this initiative is one that we can all share, and one that we should all support.

Mr Piripi has spoken many times about the unique culture that exists in Te Hiku. He believes that Maori and non-Maori in this community can achieve a degree of unity that might elude others around the country. Whiria te Muka is perhaps another manifestation of that.

Despite the strong inference at last week's summit, crime and violence are not a specifically Maori issue, and the drive must not simply be to reduce the rate at which Maori are being imprisoned.

We are all in this together. We can all learn from each other. And if Whiria te Muka delivers on its promise, we will have every right to invite the government, and rest of the country, to take close look at what we're doing.