Māori-based justice solutions are effective and could reduce reoffending rates if expanded to cover more offenders and more serious offending, the head of a justice reform group says.
Chester Borrows chairs the Safe and Effective Justice Programme Advisory Group that will make recommendations to the Government to improve the criminal justice system later this year.
He told the Herald that Rangatahi Courts for Māori youth offenders and Iwi Community Panels for low-level Māori young adult offending were both working well, and they could be expanded to cover more offenders and more serious crimes.
How to deal with Māori offending is a key focus of the Government's attempt to lower the prison muster and the reoffending rate, though finding political support for any reforms could be challenging for the Labour Party.
Justice Minister Andrew Little has already had to shelve his plans to axe the three strikes law because NZ First did not support it.
But Little said there should be public support for ways to reduce reoffending; about 68 per cent of Māori prisoners are reconvicted within two years of release, higher than the general rate of 61 per cent.
Rangatahi Courts are for young people who admit their offending or have had their charges proven, and if the victim consents. They apply the same law and procedure as Youth Courts, but integrate tikanga Māori into the process; they are held on marae, incorporate Maori language and protocols, and involve kaumātua/kuia.
The aim is to re-engage youth with their culture to provide a platform to tackle underlying causes.
A Ministry of Justice review of 575 young people who passed through Rangatahi and Pasifika courts from 2010 to 2012 found that the reoffending rate within 12 months (41 per cent) was lower than for the Youth Court (46 per cent).
Iwi Community Panels are managed by police and credited with a 12 per cent reduction in reoffending among Māori aged 17 to 24.
Instead of being charged and being sent to court, offenders appear before iwi and community leaders and are often directed to support services.
"Rangatahi Courts are obviously working well. You'd tend to think they'd work well for adults as well," said Borrows, a former National Party Minister.
"And Iwi Community Panels for low-level offending have also been working really well. But they are limited to crimes in the Summary Offences Act - disorderly behaviour and wilful damage, low-level offending. Family violence, for example, isn't included.
"If they're that good and involving the engagement of iwi, wouldn't it be a good idea to move in some of the Crimes Act offences?"
Little told the Herald that looking at more Māori-based solutions to Māori offending had merit.
"If there's ways of managing Māori offenders with them dealing with their own kith and kin in a way that's going to stop offending, then why wouldn't we explore those sorts of options?
"Stopping reoffending is the critical issue. I eagerly await any recommendations the group makes in that respect."
Little acknowledged that ideas such as better support for prisoners when released and Māori-based solutions may not be popular, and getting broad political support may not be easy.
"That's the challenge of the process, to navigate that. That happens when there is a good public debate, and a level of public support for change.
"The public will support initiatives where the evidence suggests there is a much better chance of reducing reoffending. It's in the interests of all of us to get that reoffending rate down."
Principal Youth Court Judge John Walker has said that the reoffending rate in Rangatahi Courts was difficult to determine, due to their brief history and the relatively small number of offenders.
"Nevertheless, you would reasonably expect that if you deal with the underlying causes of offending effectively – and Rangatahi Courts are a good setting in which to do this – you will reduce a person's level of offending," Walker said in an article for the Auckland District Law Society last year.
"Ultimately, I believe their real power lies in their potential to influence and improve how all courts work and interact with the communities they serve."
• First piloted in 2008, now 15 courts nationwide
• Option for Māori youth offenders who admit guilt or have charges against them proven
• Marae-based family group conferences to engage young people with Māori culture
• Has reduced reoffending rate by 11 per cent compared to the Youth Court
Iwi Community Panels
• First piloted in 2010, now 15 panels nationwide
• For those aged 17 and over who take responsibility for low-level offending
• Can appear before iwi and community leaders instead of being charged and going to court
• Has reduced reoffending by 12 per cent for young Māori aged 17 to 24
Māori make up:
• 15 per cent of the population
• 42 per cent of police apprehensions
• 43 per cent of police prosecutions
• 51 per cent of the prison muster