Day two of the criminal justice summit. Kelvin Davis takes the stage to talk about Corrections' plan to reduce prison numbers. He opens by saying we have the second highest incarceration rate in the world. He is wrong: years ago, we were second in the OECD behind the United States, but we are fifth now, and 60th of 222 countries worldwide. The person at the head of our prison system should know better.

The floor is opened for audience participation. A young man on parole introduces himself with a pepeha in te reo Māori. He was on remand in prison for 18 months, he says, and his 20-year-old cousin and co-defendant hanged himself in his cell. They were imprisoned together but separated, so he could not say goodbye. He reads a poem about the "concrete cage that seems to be my home".

Then a woman describes someone trying to kill her, fracturing her skull and "smashing my body to pieces". She learned her 3-year-old had been murdered in the next room. As she speaks, it should have been her daughter's 25th birthday. "Happy birthday, Brittany," she says.


I listen from the edge of the open-plan conference room in Porirua with 700 other people. I am a criminologist and my mind races to make sense of these haunting stories. I dwell on the links between them, how they feel woven together, victimisation inside prison and out. I am planning a lecture on reform for the Victoria University course I teach on prisons in New Zealand. I wonder: what can we learn from these stories about the failures of our social order and how we might better prevent harm to our people?

Simon Bridges says the summit is a "talk-fest" and a waste of time. He wants less talking, more doing. But the doing he wants will have us building mega prisons filled with Māori. New Zealanders are searching for new ways of doing crime and justice, confronting the moral and political dilemmas of this complex area of our lives together. Bridges dismisses the whole exercise, recycling mindless old slogans about "getting tough" on crime.

Garth McVicar has been our main opinion leader on criminal justice for 15 years. He is a doer, not a talker or a thinker, and misinformed about the issue he has dedicated his life to doing something about. In his book Justice, published by Penguin, he presents a graph showing crime spiralling relentlessly upwards since the 1950s. In fact, crime has been falling for 25 years. Along this fictional upward line, he scatters vaguely named events such as "1973 Human Rights" and "1974 DPB". It looks like something scrawled on a napkin by a pub drunk.

Too much doing, not enough thinking. It is time to bury myths. If we are serious about reducing prison numbers and keeping our communities safe, we need to come together to share our knowledge and educate one another. We need to talk about justice. We need to talk at the kitchen table, on the marae, in the counsellor's office, in the car on the way to rugby practice. And every so often, we need to talk at a national summit with hundreds who care.

These are not problems you talk about once and solve for good. The process has just begun. Those in power have created an opening for fresh thinking and new ideas. Let's not waste the chance.

Dr Liam Martin is a criminologist at the University of Victoria.