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JustSpeak is a group that aims to reorient conversations surrounding our criminal justice system and in the process empower young people to think independently and speak out about justice issues. We spoke to Katie Bruce, the Director of JustSpeak’s Operational Board, in a free moment after she had spent a long day at the International Coalition for Children of Incarcerated Parents conference — an event which brought together people from around the world to talk about, and hear from, children with incarcerated parents.
Can you talk us through the practical work JustSpeak does to support young people and make change in the criminal justice system?
JustSpeak is made up of a large network of mostly young people, and some not so young people, who […] think that, due to there being so many issues in our criminal justice system, what we really need is systemic, structural transformation. We focus on legislative and policy changes that will have a large impact on lots of people in the future.
One of the things we decided very early on, we’ve been going for five years, was that one of our priorities is to take 17-year olds out of the adult justice system. As young people, this is a big issue for us. It has devastating consequences when we put young people into the adult justice system. It was some random law that came in and hasn’t been updated. As well as transformative change, we need some incremental and short term changes, and this was one of things we could achieve.
You recently made a submission in partial support of the Children, Young Persons, and their Families (Oranga Tamariki) Bill, focusing on the parts of the Bill that relate to criminal justice. This Bill proposes raising the age of youth justice to include some (not all) 17-year olds — an issue which has been an ongoing one for JustSpeak. You also recently launched a petition to raise the age to 21. Could you run us through some of the problems with handling more “serious” offences in the adult court system?
What is so concrete in the evidence around our adult justice system is the devastating consequences it has when you put young people through it. If you’re under 20, and you’re in prison in New Zealand, you have an over 90% chance of being reconvicted within in two years. The evidence that it is not working, in whatever sense working means, is absolutely beyond doubt.
The whole process [of the youth system] is quite different, it’s not just the outcome. 80% of our young people would never end up in court anyway — in most cases it’s dealt with by police, and that’s great because keeping youth away from court is good, because as soon as they’re in the system they’re much more likely to stay in the system. Staying in the system obviously means harm to others. In the youth court system, those who’ve been harmed (e.g. families) have much more involvement than they do in the adult system. They have much more opportunity to be involved.
The adult system is more about finding the punishment to fit the crime and about sentencing, the youth system is about looking at why — why did this young person end up here in the first place? How did they get here? Do we need some support in attending education? What’s actually going on for this young person?
So it offers more opportunity for rehabilitation, rather than just finding “adequate” punishment?
Yeah, but it’s not perfect. We have massive over-representation of Māori in the youth justice system — 71%, which is absolutely overwhelming. There are lots of issues, but the adult system basically writes off a young person.
In a media release in November last year, JustSpeak reflected on NZ prison numbers hitting the 10,000 mark. The release states: “Crime has fallen 15% in the past five years, but prison numbers are rising. Last year, 90% of this increase in prison numbers was due to a rise in the number of people being held on remand.” What, in your view, is causing this increase in people being held in remand, and what issues does this raise?
It’s really interesting that the rise in the prison population is seen as so inevitable that we need to build another prison. The truth is that almost all of this rise in the prison population is directly because we introduced the Bail Amendment Act in 2013. The Act put the onus on the individual to prove that they are not a risk to society, rather than the court proving that they were a risk. It changed that around and a few other things, including that you can not be bailed to an apartment because the GPS monitoring system does not know what apartment you are in. In practice, most of the time you cannot be bailed to a Housing New Zealand house either. There are lots of restrictions that mean there are so many people, 27% of our whole prison population, who are currently on remand — they haven’t been sentenced to prison.
They’re held in a prison while on remand?
Yeah, they’re in prison. And half of those will not be sentenced to prison. We have about the same number of people being held in prisons right now [on remand] who will not be sentenced to prison as the whole capacity of the new prison. There is no logic there.
There’s been quite a lot of coverage of the mismanagement of the prison system by the likes of Serco and, from that coverage, prison appears a violent place to be held in. Holding people on remand in this environment seems counterintuitive to a goal of reducing prison numbers?
It’s a funny thing, because prison has become so normalised in our society. This is what Professor Tracey McIntosh, from Auckland University, was saying this afternoon: imagine a world without prisons — why can’t we do that? It’s so ingrained in our minds. We’ve got this framework that we see the world through, where prison is a part of that. We need to look beyond, when we know that being in prison has hugely traumatic effects for those incarcerated, for their families, for their children — and it makes them far more likely to reoffend and come back into the system. Plus it’s hugely expensive. We’re going to be spending $2.5 billion in the next five years on new prisons and new spaces as well as new operational costs for the new people. It’s going to create far more harm than it’s going to solve.
Last week, we published a story about Victoria University contracting out laundry services to the department of corrections in trimester three, which sees women in Arohata prison being paid between $0.00 and $1.00 per hour for their labour. A common response to these statistics is “well, at least they are doing something useful or productive, why should we be paying prisoners to do work?” What are the issues with this kind of discourse?
We have a minimum wage in this county and a living wage in this country for a reason, as this is how much you need to live a basic life on. The idea that we would require people, and I don’t know if that’s what’s happening here, to work for potentially $1.00 per hour goes against, even if we accept the idea we need prisons, what prison is about. They talk a lot in the US about how different is this — especially given the makeup of the people in prison — to slavery. That’s not what I’m saying is happening in a New Zealand context, but these are often people who have been let down by our systems — especially our women in prison. Something like over 90% of our women in prison have been abused as children and young people. What are we trying to gain from this? If we want people to learn skills, we can do that in communities. We don’t need people in prisons for that.
Thanks for talking to us. Just as a final question, what’s your favourite colour?