Specialist drug and alcohol courts in Auckland will be made permanent and a new one will be opened in Hamilton, Justice Minister Andrew Little has announced as part of a pre-election-year promise for major reform of the justice system.

Releasing two independent reports that deeply criticise the sector, Little on Thursday said the Government would embark on a "new direction" in the criminal justice system in a bid to tackle reoffending and incarceration rates.

"Thirty years of locking more people up for longer has not changed reoffending rates nor made communities safer," Little said.

"One thing I am not going to do is get into a bidding war, puffing our chests out, showing how hairy-chested we are and how tough we are going to be."


Tommy Wilson: New Zealand's high incarceration rate 'out of control'
Jarrod Gilbert: Māori incarceration rates are an issue for us all
High incarceration rate is the real prison scandal

But in a sign of what will be a major gap between National and Labour next year, National Party leader Simon Bridges has promptly accused the reports' authors and the Government of getting soft.

While large-scale and long-term change is being promised, Little on Thursday announced the two current Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Courts in Auckland and Waitākere would immediately be made permanent.

The Government will also fund a new, third court in Hamilton – with Little promising it would open next year.

The courts take an experimental approach to repeat offenders with substance issues, putting them through intensive rehabilitation programmes in lieu of jail time and treating them as "participants".

The two pilot courts were set up in 2012 but expansion has been slow since. They're estimated to cost about $5 million a year more to run than regular courts for the same offenders – although reduced jail time offsets costs.

Little said the trial had proved effective, with participants within two years 23 per cent less likely to reoffend and 35 per cent less likely to commit another serious crime.

The initial funding would come out of the Proceeds of Crime Fund – which is made up of money seized from criminals and organised crime.


As part of the broader reform programme, Little on Thursday also promised he would make an announcement about courts on Monday, which is expected to include a redesign of courtrooms.

The Government would also roll out other specialist courts over time, he said.

And he's committed the Government to "comprehensive system change over time that treats victims with respect and dignity".

Little said the two independent reports released on Thursday were the product of some of the most extensive community engagement on the justice system.

Te Tangi o te Manawanui: Recommendations for Reform - from the Government's Chief Victims Adviser, Kim McGregor – describes a "crisis of confidence in the criminal justice system for victims" and says major reforms are needed on a range of fronts.

It calls for an independent body to be set up to enforce victims' rights, a new system focused on restoring victim wellbeing and a variety of alternative justice processes.

The other document, by Turuki! Turuki!, by Te Uepū Hāpai I te Ora (the Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group) also called for "urgent transformative change".

The group - chaired by former National Party minister Chester Borrows - described the system as racist, failing Māori, failing to help victims and stop reoffending, and alienating.

While the report recommends widespread systemic changes, Borrows told media the top priority was a call for cross-party agreement on transformation of the system.

"Frankly, the tough talking hasn't worked and the rhetoric around law and order has meant public perception of crime has been guided more by emotion than by facts," he said.

National says "no chance"

But the report calls for legalisation of personal cannabis and other major changes, and Bridges on Thursday told reporters there was "no chance" of consensus.

"Ultimately what you've got in that report is a view that is soft on crime that says 'we're just going to free up the use of drugs' … I'm never going to go along with that," Bridges said.

"You don't solve crime and make New Zealanders safer just by going soft."

Little said the Government would also consider reviewing seven-year-old alcohol laws – as recommended - but would not be making changes before the election.

The Safe and Effective Justice Advisory released an interim report in June, painting a bleak picture of failure at almost all levels of criminal justice in New Zealand.