Punishment and compassion

A line in my speech to the candidate conference last Sunday seems to have generated some interest.  I spoke “…of restoring to health the offender and those offended against, of an obligation to respect human rights even as we punish”.

The Greens’ approach to justice is based on a restorative approach – as outlined in our policy :

Restorative Justice has three characteristics:

  • The victim is at the centre of the process and the first priority is to heal the harm caused by the crime.
  • Community involvement, allowing more appropriate and creative outcomes.
  • A focus on getting the offender to take responsibility for what they have done, and take steps to put it right.

Our policy also proposes a number of principles, one being that  “Our justice system should be part of the way we create a just and peaceful society.” All that was no doubt in the back of my mind when drafting my speech notes late on Saturday, as was a recent example of how our system continues on occasion to get it horribly wrong.

Arthur Taylor is routinely referred to as a ‘career criminal’, and with some justification.  He has also been something of a thorn in the side of the Corrections Department, having had some success in taking the department  to task through the courts, despite having no formal legal education.

A recent Ombudsman’s report has identified serious mistreatment of Mr Taylor, and it is hard to avoid the suspicion that this treatment is in part a form of ‘payback’ for his determined efforts.

It is simply wrong that a person should be mistreated while in the custody of the state.  We routinely deprive people of their liberty for offending, we deny them many of the rights that citizens usually enjoy.  We must not, if we profess to be a decent society founded  on respect for the rule of law, deprive people of basic human rights as defined in national and international law and conventions.

Those  who struggle to accept this requirement as a philosophical premise may be amenable to an appeal to pragmatism. With very few exceptions, the inmates in our prisons will one day be released into society.  Many of the people who offend do so because they have no empathy, no concern for the hurt they inflict on their victims, be it against people’s property, or violent offences against the person.  Those who grow up with no experience of compassion, with no clear boundaries, are unlikely to develop the habit of being compassionate to others, or with respect for their rights.

Any parent, any teacher knows that the best way to influence a child is to model the behaviour you would have them adopt and replicate.  Many offenders, in particular violent offenders, have grown with the experience of violence, in environments where ‘might is right’, with physical strength (and often a measure of brutality)  the defining characteristic of  authority.

So what is the logical outcome of an offender being incarcerated, and  being subject to mistreatment, being denied basic rights?  The person’s whole belief system, the worldview they have based on their lived experience,  will be reinforced.  Their lack of trust or empathy will be further entrenched.  When they are eventually released,they will be no less defensive, no less reactive, no less likely to lash out  if they are threatened or even perceive a threat.

Is it not simple common sense, as well as an obligation in a truly civil society, to ensure that our institutions model proper behaviour, showing absolute respect for the law and proper process?  If offenders observe representatives of the state acting outside the law or due process to achieve their ends, why should offenders believe that their own anti-social attitudes and actions are misguided?

‘Do as I say, not as I do; may get short term compliance, but is a poor strategy if the goal is to change hearts and minds, and to move people along the path ‘from outlaw to citizen’.


2 Comments Posted

  1. Good topic Dave..
    I again, raise the issue of the War on drugs (specifically natural Cannabis). Applaud the Greens for attempting to put it on the agenda.
    Who is the victim of the ‘crime of possession’, for personal use ?
    Where is the compassion.. often these ‘offenders’ are presumed GUILTY, before proved otherwise… if ever.
    The criminal justice system, has a total zero-tolerance attitude in Aotearoa/NZ, whereas in many other western countries they are moving toward law reform. Even the NZ law comm. report 2011 recommended it, BUT instead they passed the psychoactive substance act 2013, which excluded cannabis. So much for harm ‘minimisation’, it borders on MAXIMISATION by regulating the more-harmful drugs. Its all about Punishment & nothing about Compassion !

    kia ora

  2. How do I “Log In to have your comments appear immediately” ???
    I have logged in to the Green party site but this does not get me logged in to this page.
    thanks for your help.
    I have a comment to make on this post.

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