COMMENT:

From victims to villains, from the experts to enthusiasts, the Justice Advisory Group (JAG) is hearing from all Kiwis to understand the problems of criminal justice.

The JAG plan is a simple one; the execution could scarcely be more difficult.

The first part of the plan is consultation and it's all about "active listening", which is management speak for "listening". This involves more than 50 meetings with different stakeholders and 32 sessions open to the public between Kaitaia and Invercargill. By Christmas the JAG will have talked with 4000 people and heard from scores more through written submissions.

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We are listening to offenders and people who work with them as well as victims and their advocates. Often — but certainly not always — the offender and the victim are the same people just at different times of their life. Child victims, for example, become adult offenders with a monotonous regularity. The degree to which the wider public doesn't seem to accept that is baffling to those working in justice.

Recently we heard from staff at Women's Refuge who told us of seeing beaten women come in for help and years later seeing the kids of those women turn up in prison.

The second part of the plan is taking what we've heard and creating broad policy ideas; and then engaging with the public again.

This second consultation will show whether or not the JAG has listened to people and that the ideas are reflective of the issues on the ground. It will also give people time to critique the proposals and narrow them down. For example, we may highlight an issue and give a range of different solutions. The question will be, what's the best way to go?

At that point the JAG will drill down to create transformative policies. The idea is to make New Zealand's criminal justice system the envy of the world.

We won't do that by doing nothing. As a woman in Kaikohe told us yesterday, "If we keep doing the same things, we'll keep getting the same outcomes."

But here's the tricky bit.

While the problems of the criminal justice system are well recognised, not least of which the terrible over-representation of Māori, the solutions are complex and often tangled in the fishing net of politics.

We should all be suitably daunted but unbowed by the complexity of the issues, but nobody is looking forward to the potential headache of the political debate.

If there is anything that corrupts intellectual inquiry and endeavour it is political considerations. For years we have been poorly served by the politics around crime and justice. The consequences of this (one of the highest incarceration rates in the Western world, for example) ought be enough for our political leaders to rally around. But history suggests otherwise.

For years the main parties fought over who could be "tougher", which was shorthand for who could do the least thinking.

But things have changed somewhat. Justice Minister Andrew Little and Labour have signalled a strong desire for reform, and in National's last turn at bat — and influenced by Bill English as Minister of Finance — the party acknowledged the problems and in significant ways sought to address them.

While beating the "populist" drum now it is in Opposition, new leader Simon Bridges has said National is open to supporting policies around rehabilitation and reintegration that will reduce reoffending rates.

I suspect there will be some notion of consensus around crime prevention and victim support, too.

While I still fear for the quality of the political conversation, there is enough here to give some hope. But just how transformative can we be?

Without question the significance of the agenda will be decided in large part by the will of New Zealanders. And that's why the JAG has formed such a thorough plan around public consultation. It's up to you.

The ideas that will eventually make up our suite of policy recommendations are being formulated right now as we travel the country.

This is the opportunity for New Zealanders to influence it. Be part of the solution. Get involved. We look forward to hearing from you.

Dr Jarrod Gilbert is a sociologist at the University of Canterbury and the lead researcher at Independent Research Solutions. He is a member of the Te Uepū the Justice Advisory Group.