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Kerre Woodham: The trouble with cultural reports

Author
Kerre Woodham,
Publish Date
Thu, 8 Feb 2024, 1:35PM
Photo / File
Photo / File

Kerre Woodham: The trouble with cultural reports

Author
Kerre Woodham,
Publish Date
Thu, 8 Feb 2024, 1:35PM

As promised, the coalition government has followed through on its promise to scrap Labour's target of reducing the prison population by 30%, although it looks like Chris Hipkins got in before the government could in the lead up to last year's election.  

Then Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, in a desperate scramble for votes, said the prison population reduction target is already gone. Gone. It was part of the big dump pile that Chris Hipkins created when he became Prime Minister, anything he deemed to be unpopular with the public got scrapped in a bid for re-election.  

So, the prison population reduction target of 30%, he said, was gone. The coalition government has confirmed that. No prison reduction target.  

They've also scrapped government funding for cultural reports, or S27 reports. Now these reports have been around since 2002. Initially, they were funded by the Justice Ministry and there were roughly 250 odd reports written between 2002 and 2017. Again, initially they were seen as a way of members of an offender's whanau or family to stand up and address the court and give the judge insight into why this person was appearing before them.  

They weren't terribly successful because the judges weren't that jazzed on having somebody appear and address them when they might not be able to understand the intent of what was behind it or what the meaning was behind the address, and a lot of people didn't feel comfortable about standing up in court and addressing a judge. And another reason was that a lot of offenders appeared in court because they didn't have any whanau or family behind them. That was part of the reason why they'd gone rogue.   

Anyone can or could ask for a cultural report, but they are predominantly written for Māori who are appearing before a judge. Somebody cottoned on to the fact that this is a jolly good thing.  

Defence lawyers, especially those appearing under legal aid, simply don't have the time to do a thorough investigation into an offender's background. They say there aren't the billable hours to do that, so you farm that out to somebody who will. And figures show the number of invoices for written reports approved by the Ministry of Justice rose from 74 in 2018 to two 2333 in 2021. Costs have increased from around 865,000 in 2019 to more than $6 million in 2021, so everybody cottoned on that this was a great idea.  

And when you look at the number of businesses that have been set up to write these reports and you look at the testimonials from anonymous offenders and anonymous defence lawyers who say, oh, amazing, got home detention when I wasn't expecting it. Incredible, got 30% off what I was expecting to get. You can see why offenders and would think, ‘Well, bloody hell, I'm going to get that?’, especially when you don't have to pay for it. 

You can still get a cultural report if you choose to pay for it. What has happened is that this government has said the taxpayer is not going to fund it anymore. Corrections Minister Mark Mitchell says cultural reports have moved away from being a way for Whanau and family to support an infant, into a cottage industry costing the taxpayer millions. 

 

“It's important to remember that the cultural reports are important, and they can give very good information and put good information in front of the judge. However, the intent of it was always to be a family member or whanau member that actually knows the person and could get up and present either an oral submission or a written submission. It has turned into this to perverse sort of twisted cottage industry where people that didn't even know the person going in front of the court were writing cultural reports, in a way to try and, quite simply, reduce their sentence. And so of course we ended up with an over 200% increase in people out on it to electronic bail, and all it did was transfer the risk back into the community.” 

 

Absolutely.  

So again, there are a number of problems with continuing with the idea of saying, well, we're not going to pay for it, but if you've got a whanau member who can stand up and address the judge who fill your boots, go for it and let them have their say, for the very reasons I outlined earlier: they might be estranged, and you might have whanau members who are not comfortable at all at standing up in court and addressing a judge.  

There's no doubt, as Mark Mitchell said, the insight into a criminal's background can give a judge context with sentencing. And they can ask for a cultural report if they believe that's going to help them with a complex case or where they feel they need more insight into the offender before they can give a fair and just sentence.   

I noticed that ACT, in their press release, used the same example because that still sticks in my craw. Remember the teen mongrel Mob member who indecently assaulted a pregnant woman in her own bed. He was given 12 months home detention.  

19-year-old Stevie Taunoa thanked Judge Gordon Matenga after receiving his sentence, I think it was last year, wasn't it? He walked from the dock, into the police cells and yelled “cracked it!”  

Now one of the main reasons for a cultural report, according to the report writers, according to the businesses that write cultural reports, is that they will help with rehabilitation. That the cost to the taxpayer will be more than offset by keeping a person out of prison and in the community contributing. That by giving a judge insight, that by an offender receiving a home detention sentence or a much lighter sentence, it will give them a second chance. Make them think somebody's finally listened to me. Heard my truth. Yay, now I can go and be a contributing member of society.  

The trouble is that in not one of these eloquent pleas to keep the reports, that are the very reason for these businesses existing, has the author shown there has been a reduction in offending as a result. I mean, there might be, I just haven't read it. 

There are a number of editorials that have appeared in the media when it looked likely that these were to be axed and they're well written, but the cultural reports are as well written as the editorials. No wonder the offenders are getting off. They're well written. They're eloquent. They're all written by people who make coin out of taxpayer funded cultural reports, but not one of them has shown as a result of cultural reports and fair and just sentencing, this person has never offended again. Or recidivism has dropped by 22%. Not once.  

And if you can show me these figures, if you can show me the stats and show me the data that the cultural reports that give judges insight into offenders will result in these offenders not offending again, then it might be easier to agree that there is a place for cultural reports and the taxpayer funding them. 

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