Putting the justice into justice


Every time there is an election, one political party or another decides justice has to be an issue. Usually there is some justification for it, though I wonder about the well being of the one issue political parties for whom justice is everything – and everything else is nothing. And yet, for all the talk about a better justice system, none of the political parties seem to be able to address some of the more fundamental issues.

Perhaps it is because justice means different things to just about every single person. Perhaps it is because different cultures have different interpretations of justice and different social norms to abide by. Perhaps also it is because justice is such a broad issue and has so many complexities, there will never be a completely agreeable understanding of what it constitutes, much less a perfect system that keeps the number of offenders as low as realistically possible.

To some it is about the victim of the crime, or the misdemeanour getting justice at all costs – sometimes even when the consequences to the perpetrator are disproportionately greater than the consequences of the crime committed. This seems to be the case with socially conservative parties, for whom somewhat traditional views of punishment, i.e. jail time, hard labour or even capital punishment, are the accepted way. To others of a more socialist leaning these ideas are outmoded, have huge social costs and stem from a view that jailing offenders is not working

To me the scales of justice start out even. Both sides have a case to answer. Since the New Zealand justice system for the most part works in terms of being transparent, and the basic rights of both the complainant and the accused being recognized by the courts, my bigger concerns are about the treatment of the victim and the offenders in terms of what happens once the jury has returned a verdict. The concerns raised in the United Nations Periodic Review of New Zealand were numerous and some were quite damning in terms of what they focussed on. But getting the New Zealand Government to address them is proving easier said than done.

Every now and again the victim actually is not a victim, and has complained to cover up something reckless that they have done. Here the “victim” actually becomes the offender, for wasting police time, for wasting taxpayer money. If the Police arrest someone because of the complaint only to find out the “accused” has no case to answer, it is even worse. Not only is there a person whose credibility has been destroyed by lying, but also a person who did nothing at all wrong and whose friends, colleagues and family are now wondering if they are dealing with a criminal, that is just as bad. The “victim” that actually was not should bear the full financial costs. If the “accused” that had no case to answer had no name suppression an apology should be printed in the local newspaper and they be issued with a letter formally rescinding the charges. In the worst case where the “accused” is convicted and ends up in jail, substantial rehabilitation will be needed – simply handing out compensation will not be sufficient. They might have been traumatized by the experience and might be suffering stress from marital issues, loss of job and so forth – how does the Crown address that?

Sometimes there are people who should never be in jail but wind up there because they fell through the cracks. I am talking about those with mental illnesses or some sort of psychological trauma that makes them unable to deal with day to day situations – possibly war zone refugees who were tortured. What are we doing to help/control them. What modern society thinks jail is the answer for these people? They need clinical help. Can’t get that in a jail.

Some people say lock ’em up and throw away the key. I find that is a hugely simplistic approach that only works on certain groups of people, and think that targetted measures such as barring one from holding a passport if they have committed crimes using a passport before are much more effective. It spares the jails another prisoner and the taxpayer many dollars in having to feed, clothe, guard the inmate and so forth. It deals with the means used to commit the crime.

And what about the genuine victims? Coming to that in the next post.

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