15 Apr 2016

'Roast Busters' case drives calls for sexual violence court

8:33 am on 15 April 2016

A decision looms on whether New Zealand will get its first sexual violence court, while other specialist courts are proving a success.

The decision will be the final instalment in the Roast Busters' under-age sex case scandal, which revived the idea at a time when other specialist courts were proving their worth in cutting reoffending.

Roast Busters was the name given to a group of teenage boys who boasted online about having sex with drunk girls, some of them under-age.

Part of the reason no one was prosecuted in the scandal was the teenage girls' families not wanting them to be put through the wringer of court.

Roast Busters. (LR) Joseph Parker, 18, and Beraiah Hales, 17.

Joseph Parker, 18, left, and Beraiah Hales, 17, two of the members of the Roast Busters group. Photo: Hi5 (social media website)

A sexual violence court is being touted as a circuit breaker that the girls could have gone to without fear.

Law professor Warren Brookbanks wants the sexual violence court established; he leads a new research centre at AUT looking into just this type of non-adversarial justice.

"At the very sharp end of the criminal justice system there's always going to be harsh penalties imposed for very serious crimes, especially serious violence or homicide," Professor Brookbanks said.

"But at the other end of the system where you have a lot of young people, and people from various minority groups, the heavy punitive approach is not necessarily the best way to go, and it doesn't necessarily reduce recidivism."

In the Roast Busters case, a sexual violence court would have offered the chance to hold the abusive young men to account, while standing a better chance of actually changing them, he said.

New York law professor and consultant Michael Perlin is one of America's leading voices on doing justice differently. It might sound like a soft-touch court, but that's not the case at all, he said.

He was in Auckland last year witnessing pilot courts for drugs and for homeless people.

The courts were doing what he called spectacular things - and he urged the government to act immediately to set up more specialist courts.

"You know, in the long run people stay out of jail ... they stay out of psychiatric hospitals, you're saving money for the state and you're doing good for society.

"You've got to spend money to set these things up. [But] it saves so much money in the long run. It also saves people's lives .... but yeah, the government has to get it."

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Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Justice Minister Amy Adams has until mid-June to respond on the Law Commission's recommendation for a sexual violence court.

Chief district court judge Jan-Marie Doogue, police, lawyers and the Ministry of Justice are all exploring the feasibility of such a court.

Other specialist courts have flown largely under the public's radar, initiated from within by judges and lawyers.

District Court judge Bill Hastings is one of those, picking up where trailblazing Justice Susan Thomas left off in running Wellington's Special Circumstances Court which is succeeding in breaking homeless people out of cycles of petty crime.

But that's a long way from sex offenders isn't it?

"It is worth the investment if they don't come back to court," said Judge Hastings. "I think the investment in rehabilitation with respect to some offenders is greater and I guess there comes a point at which you have to question how many resources can be thrown into one person.

"But to my mind, you know, I wouldn't be a judge unless I didn't believe that every human being is capable of redemption - and that's what I like about the Special Circumstances Court, we create the opportunity for people to redeem themselves."

Judge Hastings' once-a-month court costs barely a cent extra, because though these courts need to be backed up by those in the social work sector, it was being delivered pro bono in Wellington.

Auckland's pilot court for homeless people has received funding, though at times it has looked shaky.

The results might make the spending worth it for the government: Auckland's three-year experiment with a drug court has saved $5 million by keeping 70 offenders out of jail.

Offending by young people who have gone through 14 rangatahi and two Pasifika courts, mostly on marae, has been cut by about 10 percent.

Meanwhile, prisoner numbers are at a record high in the mainstream system and the government target for cutting reoffending by 25 percent next year is looking increasingly far off.

Professor Perlin is calling for more special courts, especially in his field of mental health.

"You need more ... you need to have more [specialist] courts to do what the courts you have do, you also need mental health courts, courts to divert people.

"Mental health courts are shown to cut the recidivism rate, treat people with more dignity and really break these cycles."

The first such court opened in Florida 20 years ago. Professor Perlin understood budget constraints have prevented New Zealand following on.

The second recommendation the justice minister must respond to by mid-June is to set up a process entirely outside the court, where sex crime victims could confront their abuser and seek redress.