Overhauling sentencing laws in New Zealand

The spate of violent offences across New Zealand in the last year continued today with the armed hold up of a supermarket in Ilam, Christchurch, by a man wielding a knife. And as I read the article on the internet about it, I wondered how we can change the sentencing laws in New Zealand not only to better tackle serious offending, but insofar as punishing them goes, getting judges to hand down proper sentences in the first place.

For me in part, it is not the actual sentencing laws that are the problem but the reluctance of the New Zealand judicial system to use the full array of sentences available to it. There is no real point unless the sentences themselves are grossly impaired in making significant changes unless the sentencing judge will arrive at a conclusion that makes a sound case for a heavy sentencing. Right now I have the impression that the sentencing judges are using the wrong reasoning when handing down sentences, but that in handing the sentences down they clearly think the punishments are appropriate.

Another part of the problem is that there is not enough focus on responsibility borne by accused. There will always be a small number of people that no matter how grave the crime, how justified the sentencing judge might be in handing down a heavy sentence, they will always believe themselves to somehow be the victim and blame everyone else. In saying that, and this might be a societal thing as much as an issue of context in the law. This may be exacerbated by the perceptions that certain sections of society believe they are somehow above the law – i.e. a promising rugby player who has assaulted someone might have the Rugby Union come to their defence, saying the player is just a person who needs a bit of guidance and does not know how to handle societal pressure.

Except that by the time one plays representative sport, they should know damn well the difference between societal rights and wrongs. They should know that assaulting a person is a serious offence and that this is the type of offence that gets noticed by customs officials verifying your suitability to enter another country. There should be no defending what happened.

Past posts here have referred to the use of targetted sentencing that hands down sentences appropriate to the crimes permitted – e.g. commit passport fraud, don’t get another passport issued. But how much consideration has been given to the weighting of sentences handed down in court – are the current sentences high enough; at what point should an indefinite sentence be handed down; is it time to reform the Parole Board?

That brings me to another point. The A.C.T Party introduced in 2009 a “Truth in Sentencing” Bill to Parliament that sought to ensure that sentences that get handed down in court are the ones that the offender ends up serving. I could understand the rationale of making sure the sentences imposed are the ones that the sentencing judge on the day intended to impose. But it also introduced a concept that has a very controversial history in the United States, called “Three Strikes”. The way this works is that the judge sends down sentences of increasing gravity, and when the third offence is committed, a minimum sentence of up to 25 years will be imposed.

This has many problems, not least the potential for hugely disproportionate sentences for the third offence that would have been appropriate for far worse crimes than what the accused committed. It also raises the risk, which has been realized in Washington State where the Three Strikes” law was first enabled, that criminals will see the justice system committing an injustice against them. That will not only not encourage them to reform in prison, but a person who went to jail for aggravated assault causing injury might now want to commit murder. No justice in that.

But we here in New Zealand need to have a debate about what sort of justice system we want. The one we currently have serves no one. Criminals are going to jail, but they are not reforming. Victims are losing confidence in the system and possibly not bothering to get justice because they have seen what happens and think it will happen to them. That is not good enough.

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