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I have been following the discussions from the justice ‘talkfest’ or “summit” held by the Coalition Government. I have noted, in particular, the musing of the various Ministers in attendance on how just about everybody is responsible for crime, everybody but the person who actually committed the crime. This is summed up well by Kelvin Davis who recently stated that "It's our fault he spent nearly half a century in a gang”.

I have sat with this and other statements for a few days and they continue to trouble me. I have had the opportunity to volunteer inside a few prisons, notably the old Mt Eden prison. These experiences have left a few lasting impressions on me.

Foremost among these is that we never actually help people by making excuses for them. Unfortunately, this is exactly what this government, and a whole bevy of theoricans at the summit, are doing. Those who have committed a crime are innocent they say; the real criminals are the state, the whanau, the parents… everyone but the criminals themselves.

I’m not saying that society doesn’t have an influence on our behaviours. Far from it. Many of the people I worked with in prison, had shocking and tragic back stories. Virtually everyone there had experienced drugs, alcohol, poor parenting, or quite often absent parents, and all manner of abuse.

What many at the summit seem to be forgetting is the distinction between ‘reasons’ and ‘justifications’. The statements coming from Ministers are conflating, or at least blurring, these two concepts. Yes, there are reasons people commit crimes, but that doesn’t justify them. A person is ultimately responsible for their actions - no one else. However, if you were in prison listening to statements from the summit, you could easily buy into the fiction that you are the victim in all of this. “Hey, I didn’t really do anything wrong”, ”it is society who failed”, ”I am just an innocent victim as well in all of this.” While this might be comforting to progressives (until they, of course, become a victim themselves), it actually does nothing to help people change. Why would someone with a criminal background want, or need, to change when people are telling them they are not at fault?

Change comes only through acknowledging that one has made errors. The most remarkable changes I have ever witnessed have always begun with someone willingly acknowledging their fault, and seeking to change it. The Labour-Green’s talk fest focusses on removing fault from the person committing crimes and ensures that criminals will never change. Without that change, they can never really re-integrate into society.

Put another way, if we really believe in the dignity of every person, including those in prison, then we have to allow them to understand their faults, accept the appropriate blame, and then work with them to make the changes needed. To avoid this, to blame everything and everyone else, ultimately robs those in prison of their dignity and any hope for a better future.

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