By Ted Wachtel
New Zealand is a small country that has achieved the most extensive restorative justice reform in the world.
Starting with an innovative 1989 law that pioneered the “family group conference” (FGC), New Zealand now mandates that before the courts can remove children from their homes, either for delinquency or child abuse, families must be given the opportunity for a meeting to develop their own plan to keep their children at home. The victims of young offenders’ crimes are also invited to the conference.
The concept of the FGC was a response to the Maori—New Zealand’s indigenous people—who were alarmed by the all-too-frequent removal of children from their homes in child abuse and juvenile delinquency cases.
Since the law went into effect, in a country of only 4.6 million people, there have been well over 100,000 conferences. The net effect, according to former New Zealand Judge Fred McElrea, “was that many expensive institutions were able to be closed, and court sittings dealing with young people were greatly reduced.”
McElrea wrote that the outcome has been unquantified, but has realized “substantial savings—not only in dollar terms, but also in terms of the unintended damage that those institutions can cause.” Writing in 2012, he was proud of New Zealand’s implementation of restorative justice for children and youth, but speculated about why “the usage of restorative justice for adults is so low.”
However, figures for the 2015 calendar year show the number of adult offender cases referred for a restorative justice assessment tripled from around 4,000 to just over 12,000, compared to 2014.
The increases follow a change to the New Zealand law in December 2014, “which requires courts to refer eligible cases for an assessment to see whether restorative justice is appropriate.”
Restorative justice has proven beneficial in a New Zealand study of young offenders aged 17 to 19, where re-offending rates were 17 percent lower, and 30 percent fewer offenses were committed per offender.