Part of our Alternatives to Prison series by the Wellington Community Justice Project.
by Juliet Bull
Within the criminal justice sector, the United States is more often associated with incarceration than innovation. Nevertheless, New Zealand should follow America’s lead with the establishment of management courts.
Management courts are a special type of court which emphasise the rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders. The late prominent defence lawyer Greg King has advocated for the adoption of such courts in New Zealand, after seeing their operation in the United States. They are similar in principle to the drug courts recently established on a five-year pilot in New Zealand, in which offenders will be offered extensive rehabilitation and support alongside ongoing alcohol and drug testing. These courts are an important development considering that 80 per cent of offending in New Zealand occurs under the influence of drugs and alcohol, or to feed an addiction. However, this pilot does not go far enough and should increase in scope. King envisaged a holistic court which addresses the whole litany of problems associated with typical offenders, where alcohol and drug addiction can be addressed alongside mental health issues and a lack of education and skills training.
The Courts would have wide authority to develop a personalised programme to suit offenders’ needs, operating both at sentencing and upon release from prison. At sentencing, the Court would impose conditions conducive to rehabilitation, like attending drug treatment, while also imposing punitive conditions like community work alongside measures designed for public safety like curfews. Where operating upon release from prison, the offender would already have been punished through their imprisonment so the Court’s focus would be primarily to rehabilitate and reintegrate the offender.
The current system is desperately in need of reform. New Zealand judges are poorly equipped to oversee compliance with the sentence they impose - after sentencing, judges are typically disassociated from the case. Another problem is the limited range of conditions that courts can impose when sentencing an offender. Defendants are often subject to far fewer restrictions with their actual sentence than they were whilst on bail.
Management Courts address these issues by giving judges broader discretion to impose a sentence suitable to the particular offender, and by encouraging the provision of on-going support through a core team of individuals including the judge, case manager and treatment provider. Judges should talk directly with eligible offenders in a supportive way, to congratulate their progress and ensure they are staying on track. Sceptical? So was Greg King, until he saw in person the dramatic effect that such praise had on offenders.
New Zealand cannot afford to dismiss these innovations as ‘soft on crime’ and continue down the fiscally unsustainable path we are on. Simply imposing longer sentences does not change offending patterns once offenders are released from prison - which they eventually will be. We cannot keep throwing money at the same failed policies while hoping that something will change. Instead we must reduce our high rate of recidivism by adopting policies geared towards rigorous rehabilitation and supervision, policies which are proven to promote change within offenders.