Theft and property damage do not receive the same level of reaction as a brutal attack on a woman or child. Fear and horror are the expected outcome of violent acts and motor accidents resulting in death.
Sporadic occurrences of serious crime resulting in death is not frequent enough, thankfully, to set long term patterns of reactions in the Cook Islands.
The bulk of inmates filling our Arorangi Prison are there for property offences, sex offences, violent assaults, drug-dealing, thefts, fraud, breaking and entering (burglaries), and driving offences causing death or injury.
Whenever there is a crime committed there is an emotional blow-out. Condemn and convict seems to be the ready call.
Amongst lawyers, the most unpopular division to work in is the criminal bar. The reason? There is no money in it. We do a lot of pro bono work (unpaid).
There are few of the regular prisoners who have not passed through the hands of the three of us regular criminal bar lawyers practicing at present.
We call it the rugby pass “hand-me-downs.” My turn this time, the other two’s turn next time. The usual complaints; the accused don’t show up to appointments, or answer their cellphone, or they lie so much it is difficult to offer a viable defence.
Legal aid? Forget it! I gave up accepting payment by legal aid 15 years ago. The fees are tiny and insulting. I would rather work for nothing and have been doing so.
That aside, there are some real problem cases and developments. It is amazing how many parents leave young children behind to shift to New Zealand and Australia. This is happening in Rarotonga and the outer islands.
Children are either left with grandparents or relatives with little or no supervision or discipline, the growing teenagers run wild. They become village street kids.
With little or no food at home, they are always hungry. They live on fresh coconuts and seasonal fruit. Sometimes they steal food to eat. They break into houses to raid fridges. Stealing money is a bonus to buy food, cigarettes, alcohol and pakalolo (cannabis).
In some cases, the parents are dead.
The majority of them are the children of unmarried single mothers, who have unfortunately, abandoned them.
Then we have an increasing build up of convicted young people being deported back from Australia. Street kids are being sent back from New Zealand too. We are easy pickings for the more experienced criminals from New Zealand and Oz.
However we look at it, the problem is right on our doorstep. The moral dimension is humungous. For those of us facing them every day, we cannot turn our back to these poor youngsters.
There are those who turn their noses up and away from them. The most common reaction is to look down on them, talk down to them, exert superiority over them, then dump them!
The challenge is to humanise these young people. In 1838, Charles Darwin, the English naturalist who put forward the theory of evolution by natural selection, wrote to Emma Wedgewood, “I believe you will humanise me.”
Please pause for a moment and look at these young people. They stand comatose in the dock, sometimes shaking, helpless and hopeless. They are poor, alone, unkempt, sad, abandoned human derelicts.
Are they more sinned against than sinning themselves? Are we doing anything to turn them around to contribute to society in a positive way?
These poor souls need to be redirected to discover decent useful lives. Let’s take it step by step. A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, says the Chinese philosopher Confucius.
I shudder when I read about those demanding three strikes automatic imprisonment! Keep that in America and New Zealand please! Our troubled young people are not in the same league!
There is so much more to do. Diversion is one step. Refer first and early offenders to diversion courses with experienced mediators and counsellors. This usually ends with the police withdrawing the charges.
Hygiene is critical in prison cells and police lock ups. I am told the police cells are dirty, filthy, hot and difficult to stay in. Can I invite senior police officers to spend a few hours inside their cells and see how they feel?
On behalf of the public, I invite the department of public health to do regular inspections of the police lock-up cells and the prison cells for hygiene and livable conditions.
Education of prison inmates is to be encouraged, not only in religion but basic technical skills.
Occasionally we have reports of prisoners being violently assaulted in prison and police custody by prison and police officers. There should be CCTV coverage in corridors without interfering with inmate privacy. It happens from time to time.
There should be one authority to cover both police and prison officers’ misconduct. Call it something like the Independent Police and Prison Officers’ Conduct Authority. It should be headed by a retired lawyer or experienced senior Justice of the Peace.
In New Zealand they have an organisation called the Sir Peter Williams QC Penal Reform League. It is a voluntary organisation, no pay. It was founded in memory of my alter ego lawyer, the late Peter Williams QC, who worked tirelessly to provide more humane treatment and better rehabilitation for prisoners.
I would like to help set up a branch of the League in the Cook Islands. Peter Williams’ widow Heeni Phillips Williams offered to help us set it up when she visited Rarotonga last December. She is a lawyer and New Zealand Māori, our tuaine (sister).
I know there are some people already doing welfare and social work at the prison. Well done folks, I always admire you whenever I visit clients in prison on a regular basis.
So, do you want to hear a success story of someone who made an impressive comeback after beginning life in prison for arson?
None other than Tutungi Rangatira himself, Minister George Angene Maggie! A role model to be admired and praised! Get well soon Minister, join us in the Sir Peter Williams QC Penal Reform League.
Kua rava teia, ka kite!