Deprivation in formative years reflected in statistics

Parenting needs to be treated as the most important undertaking of any person’s life, writes Janet Yiakmis.

New Zealand prides itself on being an advocate for peace, equity and now sustainability too, so reading science adviser Sir Peter Gluckman’s 25-page report on our justice system was a heavy blow to that conceit.

The report is based on data  (where available) and looks at our appalling record in relation to the justice system as it currently operates, and the rates of imprisonment that result.

We are responsible for a  racist system that discriminates against the mentally unwell and those addicted to substance abuse. In addition, we persecute men and women whose childhood experiences have prevented them from engaging with our education system well enough to master the literacy skills that are becoming increasingly necessary in the technological world.

We are fortunate in Dunedin to have access to the most detailed child development research project in the world and Sir Peter has used much of this information in the production of his report. It is a masterly disclosure of the futility of imprisoning people whose lives were compromised by early experiences, or lack of them.

I had a professional interest during my working life. First as a  new-entrant  class teacher, sometimes meeting children whose early lives were cruelly narrowed by parental circumstances they could not understand, then as a Playcentre supervisor and mother seeing the amazing growth of the earliest years before formal learning takes over. Next as an adult literacy worker for 20 years, working mainly with men, either self-referred or in the workplace, who often disclosed early traumas due to alcohol use by parents, or other physical and emotional neglect or active abuse. 

Finally, as a restorative justice facilitator for 15 years, working with offenders and their victims.

I am not a particularly altruistic person — I worked in these areas because I kept learning stuff , mostly to help me understand myself. And because "there, but for the grace of God, go I."

Early death of one parent, alcohol abuse by another, constant displacement leading to personal misbehaviour of a dangerous kind  — I could easily have become one of the statistics in this report. I am very grateful to those adults — teachers, foster parents and supporters —  who saw my turmoil, supported me and showed me other ways to survive and prosper.

In my work I have seen so many ways in which one positive, supportive person, comment or action  can effect  a change in the perception or behaviour of a "lost" individual. I just wish we really would begin to support parenting as the most important undertaking of any person’s life, especially for those first 1000 days. It’s that time when children are developing so fast and hopefully laying down the bedrocks of comprehension, curiosity, empathy and ethics.

Sir Peter’s report describes in detail the enormous cost of our current system. Our offending rates are falling but we are imprisoning more and more people, we disrupt family life, interrupt employment and fail to treat physical health issues in a humane way. We often put men in double-bunking situations leading to various assaults, and we mainly ignore mental health and substance dependence issues.

I hope every adult New Zealander will read this short report, brilliantly illustrated with informative graphs, and begin to understand the punitive, racist and uncivilised system we currently uphold. I’d love to see the peaceful, equitable and sustainable society we boast of mirrored in changes to our justice system. We should imprison only those people we cannot assist earlier or within the community who might be a danger to themselves or others.

- Janet Yiakmis is a committee member with the The Howard League for Penal Reform.

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