New Zealand Law Society - Steve Bonnar QC reflects on Criminal Justice Summit

Steve Bonnar QC reflects on Criminal Justice Summit

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Critics called it a talk fest, while the Justice Minister described the Criminal Justice Summit as a public conversation about reducing offending, reducing re-offending, and having fewer victims of crime who are better supported.

The much anticipated three day summit was held this week north of Wellington in Porirua and about 600 people attended, including people who work in the justice sector, victims of crime and people who have served time in prison following a criminal conviction.

All points of view were listened to and discussed.

“I’m encouraged by the diverse range of people who have come together to create a more effective criminal justice system,” says Justice Minister Andrew Little.  

“The ideas that are generated from workshops and discussions will inform the wider reform programme Hāpaitia te Oranga Tangata, Safe and Effective Justice,” he says

Steve Bonnar QC is the New Zealand Law Society’s Criminal Law Committee Convenor and attended the summit.

So how did the criminal defence lawyer view this summit?

“If it’s the start of a sensible conversation about what the country wants as a criminal justice system and what society wants it to achieve, then this has been a good initiative. I don’t think it was ever suggested or thought that this summit would be coming up with immediate answers to problems with the justice system,” he says.

Mr Bonnar has been practising law for over 30 years, so he is very familiar with the stories that are often told in relation to people’s experiences with the criminal justice system.

“Nevertheless it was still quite confronting, hearing the stories of people who have been through the system, either as victims of crime who spoke about how the system hasn’t responded to them adequately, or, as people who have served time in prison who shared their experiences of what they believed doesn’t work in the prison system,” he says.

Steve Bonnar QC says it did feel like there was a sense of momentum at the summit.

“There was certainly a consensus that the system needs to improve significantly, but the challenge is going to be getting the public to understand that there has to be a better system than just locking people up and throwing away the key,” he says.

Mr Bonnar would like to see the issue depoliticised but agrees, that too, is challenging.

“The reality is that while the opposition might still want to push the law and order buttons, if the public says this system isn’t working and needs to change, then it’s probably inevitable that opposition political parties will have to support reforms. It would be good if political parties would all look beyond the three year cycle and focus on a long term plan with cross party buy in,” he says.

On a personal level, Mr Bonnar, says he gained some good ideas out of various workshops, but says there is no quick fix solution.

“There were sessions that talked about how we could get better sentencing outcomes. We all know the statistics and how horrendously over represented Māori are in prison at 51% of the population. It’s outrageous and we need to be doing something as a community, not just as lawyers or as individual pieces of the puzzle. There needs to be a societal approach where communities buy into rehabilitation and the effectiveness of it. The community buys into curing the ills, the drivers of crime. A big theme that came out was that it is not just about Police and Corrections and the job they do, it’s also about education, health and early intervention and stopping the drivers of crime from an early age so that some people don’t come to the attention of police in the first place,” he says.