Beyond Prisons:


Righting Wrongs the Maori Way

Instead of prison, New Zealand chooses restorative justice and community problem-solving.

Jul 8, 2011

During the 1980s, New Zealand faced a crisis familiar to other Western nations around the world. Thousands of children, especially members of minority groups, were being removed from their homes and placed in foster care or institutions. The juvenile justice system was overburdened and ineffective. New Zealand’s incarceration rate for young people was one of the highest in the world, but its crime rate also remained high. At the same time, New Zealand’s punitive approach was also in part a “welfare” model. Although young people were being punished, they were also being rewarded by receiving attention. Yet they were not being required to address the actual harm they had caused.

Especially affected was the minority Maori population, the indigenous people of New Zealand. Maori leaders pointed out that the Western system of justice was a foreign imposition. In their cultural tradition, judges did not mete out punishment. Instead, the whole community was involved in the process, and the intended outcome was repair. Instead of focusing on blame, they wanted to know “why,” because they argued that finding the cause of crime is part of resolving it. Instead of punishment (“Let shame be the punishment” is a Maori proverb), they were concerned with healing and problem-solving. The Maori also pointed out that the Western system, which undermined the family and disproportionately incarcerated Maori youth, emerged from a larger pattern of institutional racism. They argued persuasively that cultural identity is based on three primary institutional pillars—law, religion, and education—and when any of these undermines or ignores the values and traditions of the indigenous people, a system of racism is operating.

Maori leaders pointed out that the Western system of justice was a foreign imposition. In their cultural tradition, the whole community was involved in the process.

Because of these concerns, in the late 1980s the government initiated a process of listening to communities throughout the country. Through this listening process, the Maori recommended that the resources of the extended family and the community be the source of any effort to address these issues. The FGC [Family Group Conference] process emerged as the central tool to do this in the child protection and youth justice systems.

In 1989 the legislature passed a landmark Act of Parliament. The Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act totally revamped the focus and process of juvenile justice in New Zealand. Although it did not use this terminology until later, the New Zealand legal system became the first in the world to institutionalize a form of restorative justice. Family Group Conferences became the hub of New Zealand’s entire juvenile justice system. In New Zealand today, an FGC, not a courtroom, is intended to be the normal site for making such decisions.

The Conference

FGCs are a kind of decision-making meeting, a face-to-face encounter involving offenders and their families, victims and their supporters, a police representative, and others. Organized and led by a Youth Justice Coordinator, a facilitator who is a social services professional, this approach is designed to support offenders as they take responsibility and change their behavior, to empower the offenders’ families to play an important role in this process, and to address the victims’ needs. Unlike restorative justice programs attached to justice systems elsewhere, this group together formulates the entire outcome or disposition, not just restitution.

Importantly—and remarkably—they do this by consensus of all the participants, not by a mere majority or the decree of an official. Victim, offender, family members, youth advocate, or police can individually block an outcome if one of them is unsatisfied.

A Story

I [Allan] held a Conference for a young person who was a refugee. He had come to New Zealand with his grandmother, who was his caregiver, and an aunt. New Zealand had only just started taking refugees from this young man’s country, so there were no other family members and, in fact, few other residents of his culture nearby. The three arrived in New Zealand with nothing but what they could carry. Their only income was from a benefit paid by the New Zealand government, which provided for only the very basics of food and accommodation.

The charge was serious; the young person had assaulted his grandmother for cash. He had taken the rent money, and the grandmother was afraid of what would happen now that she could not pay it. In desperation, she reported the incident to the aunt, who in turn reported it to the police.

The police referred the case to an FGC without making an arrest. I met with the grandmother and aunt to consult on what format the Conference might follow, and, in particular, what cultural and/or religious process should guide it. In this meeting I learned that the grandmother had been assaulted on more than one occasion and that she did not know where to go for assistance.

I met with the young person to explain the process to him and to see if he could identify any possible supports. It was agreed that I would invite his teacher, but it was clear this was not going to be enough. I contacted two organizations: Victims as Survivors, and the Refugee and Migrants Services Trust. Neither organization had been involved with Family Group Conferencing, but agreed to assist. I asked one to be the direct support for the grandmother and the other to help the young person meet his obligations to his grandmother.

Importantly—and remarkably—they do this by consensus of all the participants, not by a mere majority or the decree of an official.

I then arranged for the grandmother to meet with the supporting organization so that she could share her story with them. They, in turn, would help her share her story at the Conference. I advised the grandmother that they would also transport her to the Conference and see her safely back home. And I also arranged for the young person to meet with his supporting organization. They agreed that they would assist him in developing a plan to put things right and support him to complete it.

The Conference started with a prayer in their native language, and all parties used interpreters to ensure full understanding. The grandmother told her story in much detail, as did the young person. As the young person began to understand the impact he was having on his grandmother, tears came to his eyes. The young man eventually told of his life in a refugee camp before the three arrived in New Zealand, what he had to do to survive, and how in his new community he felt he could not mix with others if he did not have money. Clearly, loneliness, anger, and hurt were shared by both the young man and his grandmother.

The plan that came out of the Conference required the young person to pay in full all the money he had taken. He was given help to find part-time employment. It was agreed that he could not live with his grandmother until she felt safe with him in the house. The plan provided also for counseling to help him overcome the anger that he carried from his experiences in the refugee camp. A mentor was found from his own culture who would check that he kept his promises and put things right with his grandmother. The putting right called for him to cook a meal for his grandmother and to make an apology. He was also required to complete community work and attend school every day. He would receive support with his homework.

The plan was successful. The young man did no further offending, and he completed all his outcomes. Most valuable of all, both he and his grandmother found new friends and support that stayed with them, well beyond the Family Group Conference plan, and assisted them in starting their new lives in New Zealand.

Summer 2011

Beyond Prisons


Beyond Prisons