8 Nov 2018

Teen's imprisonment raises questions over justice and punishment

2:51 pm on 8 November 2018

There's something wrong with a system that jails a teenager for traffic offences and spits him out out as a gang member.

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Photo: 123RF

That's according to the youngest member of the government's advisory group on Safe and Effective Justice, Julia Whaipooti.

The group has held meetings in Northland this week as it tours the country to hear from people whose lives are affected by crime and punishment.

Ms Whaipooti, a 30-year-old Ngāti Porou lawyer, said the suffering of families whose young people have been imprisoned had been very evident.

One Northland whānau told the group their 19-year-old son was remanded to prison on charges escalating from driving without a license.

"That escalated in lots of different ways but that's what first got him behind bars," she said.

During his three-month remand period, the teenager had been surrounded by serious criminal offenders.

"When he came out he was a patched [gang] member. There's something wrong with that. He's been criminalised for the rest of his life, over something that was really about not being able to afford a license.

"And for his whānau, his Mum and his nanny suffering on the outside, not being able to see him and then when he does come out, seeing he has a tattoo on his face... most New Zealanders would say that's not right," Ms Whaipooti said.

The advisory group had spoken to many community groups doing valuable work with offenders, but a common theme was a lack of practical support for their efforts, she said.

Another story that resonated for her came from Women's Refuge workers.

"Hearing that a woman will go into Refuge with her children but fast-forward 11 years and those workers see those children in Ngāwhā [prison] . So what support do we have for whole families when harm is being done?"

Ms Whaipooti said it had been hard to hear from elders who had been calling for change to the criminal justice system since before she was born.

"I'm 30, so I'm the youngest member on our panel and what is hard is having nannies or kaumātua, people more than double my age who've been having these conversations longer than I've been alive.

"They've been calling all this time for change and now their mokopunas are incarcerated and... it's upsetting to think why have we continued to do something that doesn't work?" Ms Whaipooti said.

The Advisory Group will hold 14 more meetings around the country before Christmas, and is also consulting police, judges and lawyers.

It will revisit communities next year with the outline of changes they believe are wanted and needed in the criminal justice system.

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