Let's reclaim justice

Let's reclaim justice

Last year, the Government announced they would be spending another $1 billion to increase the number of prison beds, including a new prison in Waikato. But will this really bring justice? JustSpeak’s KATIE BRUCE considers the issue here. 

For most of us, prisons are invisible. We haven’t had to see the inside of one and didn’t grow up imagining that we ever would. We hear about decisions made to send people to prison on the news, but it doesn’t feature in most of our lives outside of the media. But even though prisons are invisible to most of us, we can’t imagine life without them. 

Just 200 years ago, there was no such thing as a prison in Aotearoa. But 200 years on, we have over 10,000 people in prison on any one dayover 20,000 children with a parent in prisonand over 35,000 people on community sentences or orders.How did we get here?

It’s convenient for us to think that the world is made up of good and bad people. My four-year-old certainly thinks so. It’s a view reflected in so many children’s books and TV programmes: Superheroes swoop in and save everyone from the ‘bad guys.’ When you’re a child, you are trying to make sense of the world around you and like things to fit into simple categories.

When we grow up, we understand more and more how complex the world around us is. But most of us don’t come into contact with criminal justice, and for many the black and white views remain.

Scratch just below the surface, though, and this black and white picture simply doesn’t add up:

  • Most women currently in prison in New Zealand have experienced abuse at some time in their lives.4
  • Māori make up over half of those in prison and are more likely to be arrested, held on remand, and given longer sentences.5
  • People who have been in state care,6 or who have a neurodisability or poor mental health,7 are over-represented in prison.
  • 83% of those under twenty years old in prison had a care and protection record as a child.8
  • Our prison numbers have increased by 40% since 2002, despite crime falling over this time.9

Pick any one of those statistics and they say more about the creation and perpetuation of injustices than they do about justice. The system that was set up may be called the criminal justice system, but we shouldn’t get complacent. Calls for justice are often thinly veiled calls for prison. Is this what justice looks like?


What is justice?

Justice is not the legal system set up to administer the law. Justice is about administering fairness. We must reflect on the kind of society that we want to be a part of. This means holding up a mirror to our justice system and not looking away when its injustices stare us back in the face.

It means thinking critically about the fact that social housing received five times less funding in this year’s budget than new prison beds did.10 Building more prisons is surely the most expensive and least effective means to address social issues. It targets those already marginalised, particularly Māori. If instead we pursued the expansion of social justice, rather than the expansion of our criminal justice system, could we find a better way?

Rather than justice being something that the police, courts, and prisons administer for us, we could all play a role in being a part of communities committed to reducing social harm and criminalisation. We could think about social justice being something that is needed in order to achieve justice within a criminal justice system.

Just imagine if the $1 billion dollars in this year’s budget for prison expansion was instead invested in housing, mental health services, support for people with neurodisabilities, and fully funded community services.


We don’t need another $1 billion prison

JustSpeak’s recent report on why the prison population has increased rapidly in the last three years shows that the number of people held in prison on remand has doubled during that time to over 3000.11 This is largely because of changes to the bail laws, among other things, which have drawn more people into the prison system who would not have been there previously. Other countries are reducing the numbers of people they imprison and even closing prisons down. With one of the highest imprisonment rates in the OECD (comprising thirty-five countries), we are building another one. It doesn’t have to be this way.

I said at the beginning of the article that most of us are far removed from the criminal justice system. So is there anything we can do?

All of us have a role to play in changing this story and injecting a bit of justice into criminal justice. Even if we have never seen a prison, we are all part of the society that props them up and pays for them with taxes. Politicians generally think people are in favour of more prisons. I believe it’s time we told them that we’re not. Here’s what you can do:

  • Share these ideas with your friends over a cup of tea.
  • Talk to your local MP about their priorities in your community.
  • Attend one of our election forums to find out more about criminal justice and put your questions to MPs.
  • Join our mailing list by visiting our website: justspeak.org.nz.
  • Support JustSpeak’s work to build a positive and visionary criminal justice system: justspeak.org.nz/donate.


Story: Dr Katie Bruce

Katie is the Director of JustSpeak, a network of mostly young people transforming criminal justice to be evidence and experience-based.

Katie has a passion for sharing stories, ideas, and research to confront policy, practice, and prejudice. She has taken her experience in academia and policy back into the community sector where she started work to get young people’s voices heard over fifteen years ago.

Katie has a degree in Criminology and a PhD in Sociology.

Like JustSpeak on Facebook or join their mailing list to find out more. Queries can be emailed to [email protected]



  1. “Prison facts and statistics - December 2016.” Department of Corrections, corrections.govt.nz/resources/research_and_statistics/quarterly_prison_statistics/prison_stats_
  2. Liz Gordon, Invisible children. (Christchurch: Pillars, 2009).
  3. “Community sentences and orders statistics - December 2016.” Department of Corrections, corrections. govt.nz/resources/research_and_statistics/ community_sentences_and_orders/community_stats_December_2016.html
  4. Tracey McIntosh,“Marginalisation: A Case Study:Confinement, ”in Māori and Social Issues 1,ed.Tracey McIntosh and Malcolm Mulholland (Wellington:HuiaPublishing,2011), 263-282.
  5. “Over-representation of Māori in the criminal justice system: An exploratory report.” Department of Corrections, corrections.govt.nz/__data/assets/ pdf_file/0004/672574/Over-representation-of-Maori-in-the-criminal-justice-system.pdf
  6. Mel Bleach and Dave Robertson, Foster Care & Youth Offending - A Review of the Evidence.   (Wellington:HenwoodTrust, 2009).
  7. “Neurodisability in the Youth Justice System in New Zealand: How Vulnerability Intersects with Justice.” Nessa Lynch: Dyslexia Foundation of New Zealand, neurodisabilitiesforum. org.nz/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Neurodisabilities-Forum-2016-Report-1.pdf
  8. “Justice Sector Report 2013.” Ministryof Justice, justice.govt.nz/assets/Documents/Publications/2013-annual-report.pdf
  9. “New Zealand’s Prison Population.” Statistics New Zealand, stats.govt.nz/browse_for_stats/snapshots-of-nz/yearbook/society/crime/corrections.aspx
  10. “Budget 2017 - What’s in it for justice?” Katie Bruce: JustSpeak, justspeak.org.nz/budget_2017
  11.  “Bailing out the justice system:Reopening the window of opportunity.”JustSpeak, justspeak.org.nz/bailing_out_the_justice_system


Take outs

  1. Were you aware of some of the statistics in this article? What do they suggest to you about the current criminal justice system?
  2. What might it look like if some of the money going into the criminal justice system was redirected to social justice initiatives?
  3. Which of Katie’s ideas could you take on?
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