Justice reinvention

How can we transform a broken justice system? Professor Elizabeth Stanley is using Justice Reinvestment to reimagine a community-led approach to justice.

Professor Elizabeth Stanley standing in front of a barbed wire fence at a prison

Prisons don’t deter, rehabilitate, or fundamentally tackle crime, so isn’t it time we transform the way we do justice? And as part of that transformation, shouldn’t we also tackle the state care system that results in so many people being criminalised and incarcerated?

Based on her internationally recognised research, director of the Institute of Criminology at Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington Professor Elizabeth Stanley says the answer to both questions is a resounding yes

Time for circuit-breakers

“We need to get out of this hole where we’re continually individualising offenders and the problem of crime. Instead, we should be looking at systemic causes and solutions to them,” says Professor Stanley.

One such solution is a growing idea and movement called Justice Reinvestment. It’s an approach that aims to redirect the phenomenal amount of money spent on imprisoning people into social justice initiatives that strengthen communities, reduce social harms, and prevent offending. It is community led, data driven and based on interventions specific to a particular location.

“We create different pathways for individuals so we do not ultimately use prison as a response,” says Professor Stanley.

At the heart of Justice Reinvestment are three ideas.

The first is that geographical locations where people are more likely to connect with social welfare, the criminal justice, and mental health systems can be clearly identified, and Justice Reinvestment prioritised around these locations.

A community-led approach is the second idea. This means decisions on which programmes are developed and how money is spent are made by that community, with support from the state.

The third idea is that it’s data driven, so community members can base their decisions on data specific to their own community.

As in many countries, New Zealand’s police, courts, and corrections cost billions of dollars. Yet the country has one of the highest rates of imprisonment in the 37-member Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. But not all offenders are sentenced in the same way, and in New Zealand Māori are more likely to suffer negative impacts from official responses, including from the overuse of prison.

“When you think about the amount of money spent on failing aspects of the criminal justice system,” says Professor Stanley, “and what we could do with that money in our communities to provide those circuit-breakers that help people avoid offending, it’s a no-brainer.”
row of prison cells
New Zealand coat of arms on the supreme court in Wellington

Ending the long shadow of state care

Professor Stanley’s research and resulting book The Road to Hell: State Violence against Children in Post-War New Zealand (2016) contributed to the 2018 establishment of a New Zealand Royal Commission into Abuse in Care. The inquiry exposed long-silenced experiences of neglect as well as sexual, physical, and psychological abuse inflicted upon children (and adults) in state care. Thousands of New Zealanders have suffered, with Māori disproportionately victimised.

This state abuse has led to multiple social problems and experiencing violence in care led some to harden up, using violence as a coping strategy. Many people in New Zealand prisons have these care histories. Offenders are victims, and the connections between care and custody are circular and self-sustaining. How can we break these cycles?

Professor Stanley’s research focused on state care from 1950 to 2000. Although ill-treatment is less prevalent after this time, state care remains essentially abusive, she says.

Between 2010 and 2020, about 1,500 to 2,500 New Zealand children were removed each year from their families, and it is still common practice for children to be moved repeatedly across care settings.

“These practices are not part of our regular discussions about abuse in care, but are extremely abusive in their impact. And that clearly sets the trajectory from care to custody,” says Professor Stanley.

Oranga Tamariki, New Zealand’s Ministry for Children, has been told by Māori and others that it needs to step back and operate in ways more focused on centring families, whānau, hapū, and iwi in decisions and giving power and support to those families and communities so children are not removed.

Professor Stanley emphasises the need to look at family strengths when assessing them for retaining their children. And the need to consider the risks of social structures and the ways New Zealand institutions practise their work.

“We should be subverting how we think about risk and be thinking in a much more collective and encompassing way. It’s not difficult really, but I think it requires a big cultural shift.”

Related links 

Keeping communities at the centre of Justice Reinvestment 

Acknowledging State Abuse in New Zealand—Elizabeth Stanley (video) 


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New Zealand coat of arms on the supreme court in Wellington