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Twenty years of restorative justice in New Zealand

Jan 23, 2012

from the article by Fred W.M. McElrea in Tikkun:

As I look back over the last twenty years, the following aspects of the family group conference system stand out as being both innovative and of potential value to adult systems as well:

  • A real attempt was made to divert offenders away from the court system altogether. This was achieved by making diversionary conferences the default option — i.e., charges could not be laid in court unless certain criteria were met.... 
  • There are no gatekeepers deciding which cases go to a conference, and no limit on the seriousness of offenses that can be dealt with.... 
  • There was a deliberate move away from the notion that therapeutic experts “know best,” thereby enabling family and community-based knowledge to guide outcomes.
  • The legislation strongly encouraged accountability measures mixed with community-based, remedial outcomes, rather than punishment for the sake of punishment. This resulted in a massive reduction in custodial outcomes, and in custodial remands pending sentencing.
  • One result of these first four features was that many expensive institutions were able to be closed, and court sittings dealing with young people were greatly reduced....
  • State-paid officials, called youth justice coordinators, arranged and facilitated family group conferences. Volunteer input was limited to those assisting conferences by attending as community or family members. The professionalism of the coordinators, grounded in a strong set of statutory principles, was essential to making the system work....
  • Related to this, specialist police officers called youth aid officers handle all cases involving children or young people, and specialist lawyers called youth advocates are provided for all alleged offenders in youth courts....
  • The family group conference model has only been truly restorative when it has involved victims and treated them as of equal importance to offenders. Unfortunately victim involvement in conferences — which, of course, is entirely voluntary — has been variable, ranging from 80 percent of family group conferences down to around 40 percent, and currently around 50 percent....
  • Young offenders retain the right to elect trial by jury on offenses carrying more than three months’ imprisonment but have hardly ever exercised that right....
  • The family group conference model is receptive to different cultural influences and can accommodate indigenous, European, and immigrant cultures with little difficulty....
  • It is important for all involved and for the credibility of the system that the implementation of family group conference decisions be monitored....
  • Finally, the 1989 Act avoided the formalities of “pleading” to charges, something inherently linked to the adversary model. Under section 246 of the 1989 Act, where a young person is brought before a youth court, he is asked, after he has had the opportunity of taking legal advice, whether he denies the charge. If he does, the matter goes straight to a defended hearing (with all the protection of due process). In any other case, the matter must be referred to a family group conference, where the first issue to be dealt with will be whether the charge is admitted. Nearly all charges are admitted....

Read the whole article.

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