As a general rule, when the government comes knocking I wish I wasn't home. I mean, they're never dropping me a line to tell me I've won a prize. More often than not they're bringing to my attention some trifling inconvenience: Please pay your speeding fines, Dr Gilbert. Your taxes are overdue, Dr Gilbert. Your cats have been attacking neighbourhood children again, Dr Gilbert.
So when the Ministry of Justice came calling recently I wondered what horror was about to poke me in the throat. As it happens, it was worse than I could have imagined. They wanted a hand. "Would you mind being part of a group to rethink the criminal justice system?"
"Ha ha, the whole system?"
"Yes, the whole system."
I was told the group would have nine members, presenting a broad range of skills, and formally be called the "Advisory Group to the Safe and Effective Criminal Justice Reform Programme — Hapaita te Oranga Tangata". That's a hell of a mouthful, but in short it's an independent body tasked with finding answers to the big problems. Assigned a small team of support staff, former police officer, defence lawyer and National MP, Chester Borrows would be its chair.
The problems of criminal justice in New Zealand are not unfamiliar to me, and many of the issues I've written about here. But joining a team to come up with solutions is not without its pitfalls. Academics need to be critical of the government when necessary, and being paid by a state agency can compromise that. Also, nobody likes failure and these big tasks can become talkfests and little else.
But could I be critical of what was being done if I'd turned down the chance to do it right? Hardly. I had little choice but to say yes; and if I'm honest I was excited by the opportunity.
Change is more possible now than at any time in recent history. This is because most people are broadly aware that our justice system is far from ideal: our prison muster is comparatively high, the Māori imprisonment rate is wildly disproportionate, many victims say the process is hostile, our reoffending rates offer scant comfort of reducing future victims, and all this is costing us a staggering amount of money.
The National government first signalled the desirability of change. Initially through Bill English's understanding that prisons were a "moral and fiscal failure", but also by creating goals to reduce reoffending; establishing policies targeting at-risk children; and seeking greater cooperation between government agencies in relation to crime prevention.
Labour is looking to go further now it's in power, signalling its intent by promising to remove the three strikes laws and establishing a criminal cases review commission to look at unsafe convictions.
But three strikes isn't going anywhere. The agenda fell at its first hurdle. Fearful of appearing soft on crime, New Zealand First scuttled the repeal in a messy manoeuvre that served to highlight the difficulties of reform.
The criminal cases review commission will have no such problems. What's the difference? Public opinion, mostly.
The government, the independent group I'm on, even Jesus Christ himself could come up with a great policy, but it will go nowhere if the public aren't convinced by it.
Screaming white noise from those with the firmest views are where things are often derailed. Too often, particularly on social media, disagreements on one element of policy are extrapolated into a flaw of a person's entire character. We can have different opinions without being enemies.
Those with the strongest views should aim to speak with passion, but most of all I encourage them to listen. We need to focus less on what divides us and more on our common ground.
It would be useful if MPs heeded that call as well.
We need unfettered creativity. We need big ideas. And this all starts with us having the confidence to talk with one another.
Conversations need to be had in pubs and in cafes, while lingering around watercoolers and leaning on shovels. They need to be had in classrooms and in lecture theatres. They need to be had by the young and by the old.
There's no reason we can't be a global leader in justice and build a system that is the envy of the world. We have been given 12 months to come up with solutions. A big thrust for this will come from the Justice Summit organised by the Ministry of Justice on August 20-22, and at regional public hui that will follow some time after that.
I guess at this point I'm knocking on your door and asking for a favour. I'm asking you to be a part of this.
Dr Jarrod Gilbert is a sociologist at the University of Canterbury and the lead researcher at Independent Research Solutions. He is an award-winning writer who specialises in research with practical applications.
The panel consists of
• Hon Chester Borrows QSO
• Dr Jarrod Gilbert
• Quentin Hix
• Dr Carwyn Jones
• Professor Tracey McIntosh
• Ruth Money
• Julia Amua Whaipooti
• Professor Tony Ward
• Dr Warren Young QSO