Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Institutionalizing Restorative Justice in New Zealand's Criminal Justice System: Gains, Losses and Challenges for the Future

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posted on 2021-03-11, 02:10 authored by Sarah Shank

Restorative justice has played a paradoxical role in the New Zealand criminal justice system. One the one hand, over the past thirty years restorative justice has steadily gained public recognition and received institutional support through judicial endorsements and legislative provisions. In many respects New Zealand has been at the global forefront of incorporating restorative justice processes into the criminal justice system. This, in the hope that restorative justice might improve justice outcomes for victims, offenders and society at large.

Yet despite such institutional support for restorative justice, the outcomes of the mainstream justice system have not substantially improved. Ironically, many of the same statutory provisions that enabled restorative justice included punitive provisions that served to tighten the reins of the carceral state. The New Zealand prison population is currently one of the highest in the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the downstream consequences of which have been devastating for those impacted, and particularly for Māori.

Openly acknowledging that the existing justice system is “broken,” the government launched a criminal justice reform program in 2018 to consider a range of options that might contribute to fundamental change. Initial feedback elicited as part of the process calls for a more holistic and transformative approach to criminal justice. Notably this is what restorative justice, at its best, claims to deliver. However, the New Zealand criminal justice system appears to lack such transformative aims and the role of restorative justice in driving institutional change in the future remains to be seen.

This thesis examines the institutional paradox of restorative justice in New Zealand. It explores how and why restorative justice originally became an established part of the criminal justice system and what impact it has had on the system of which it has become a part. Drawing on institutional theory, it assesses how far restorative justice institutionalization has progressed, the factors that have facilitated it and the barriers that have impeded it. Finally, it identifies ways in which restorative justice, when institutionalized through principles, policy, law and practice, can make a more lasting impact for those whom the justice system is intended to serve.

Within restorative justice literature, both those who commend institutionalization and those who oppose it highlight problems caused by “isomorphic incompatibility” between the mainstream adversarial system and restorative justice. This thesis argues that while foundational tensions exist between the two approaches, such tensions are not insurmountable. Simplifications or exaggerations of incompatibility overlook important similarities and confluences between the two approaches. Confronting such institutional “myths” is necessary if isomorphic combability is to occur.

These claims are illustrated through an examination of sexual violence. The pressing problem of responding well to sexual violence illustrates how isomorphic alignment, through careful integration of restorative principles and practices into the criminal justice system, can enable the state to fulfil its responsibilities of ensuring societal safety and protecting the rule of law in ways that better meet victims’ distinct justice needs and the best interests of all stakeholders.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Doctor of Philosophy

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Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Government


Marshall, Chris; Noakes-Duncan, Tom