[quote]A marae is a sacred place for Maori and Pacific Islanders. It could be a hall or a church, where people gather to celebrate their culture. It is also where important ceremonies such as weddings and funerals are held.
But in the North Island city of Gisborne, marae have a new purpose - they are being used as a youth court.
Judge Hemi Taumaunu says it is a first for New Zealand.
“There was a feeling amongst the professionals that something needed to be done and then support was gained to take the court, as we have done, from this building to the marae,” he said.
While Maori make up only 15 per cent of the New Zealand population, they make up half of the prison population.
But over the past six months, defence lawyer Phil Dreifuss says there have been real signs of progress.
“Well, I think the proof in the pudding is going to be down the track when we see if there’s any reoffending, but certainly from the point of view of the attitude of the young people, the fact that they’re turning up and not missing court, I think that’s all showing that it’s working for them,” he said.
Mr Dreifuss says while a young Maori offender’s case is being heard, the judge makes the youth aware of their connection to the marae.
“They look up and they see their ancestors and they know that this place has some meaning for them. I think it’s very significant,” he said.
Thomas, 14, recently appeared in the marae-based youth court.
“I was hanging around with the wrong crowd and doing burglaries and all of that,” he said.
The teenager says he was treated as an equal in the marae.
“Better than the High Court because there the judges [are] way meaner. They [marae court judges] are nice to you. He sets a goal out for a year and then I just do it and he just changed my life too.”
The youth services coordinator for New Zealand Police, Sergeant Craig Smith, says there is a lot more respect for proceedings under the new system.
“We’re finding that there’s a big level in respect and attitude. It’s a real attitude change with all persons concerned, but more so with the young people,” he said.
"We see the attitudes are left at the door and often in the district court or in the youth court we see people walking in and it’s just a huge swing in attitude.
“More respect, so it’s early days at this stage but it’s impressive.”
Mr Dreifuss wants the program introduced across New Zealand. He says it is clear the current system is not working and it is time to try something different.
“It’s more light-hearted than the court. They’re both very solemn places but we have a laugh here, we have a cup of tea, we have a talk, it’s good,” he said.
"If the politicians want to reduce crime they should come and have a look at what’s happening here. This is dealing with crime in the initial stages. It’s dealing with young people when they’re first offending.
“If it works, and I think it will, we won’t see them again, rather than this talk of three strikes then you’re out and putting people in jail forever. This way they’ll never get to jail.”[/quote]