Three strikes law on its third strike


Minister of Justice Andrew Little has announced his intention to scrap the notorious “Three Strikes” legislation in New Zealand that was introduced by the previous National-led Government. The law change, which is intended to address the soaring rate of incarceration in New Zealand, has been met with a guarded response with some wondering what would replace it; others bemoaning its impending demise; still more quietly welcoming it.

And almost immediately, the National Party announced that it would immediately reinstate any such laws, immediately showing a classic case of reactionary politics, whilst failing to supply an adequate explanation.

I personally support the repeal. When I first heard about it just before the 2008 election, I thought such sentencing power would make prisoners think twice for committing their offences. A decade later and I have swung 180º and concluded that it needs to go.

For example let us suppose a person was involved in a car jacking and then an armed robbery, within a short space of time. Several years later during which time no other criminal activity happens Person A is caught breaking into a car. Because of his prior offences Person A is immediately sentenced to 25 years jail. Such a case happened one time a couple of decades ago in Washington State, where

Whilst on the count of two violent crimes and a lesser crime Person A should have already gone to jail, sending Person A to jail for 25 years using the third crime as a trigger is disproportionately severe. Why? Because thousands of cars are stolen every year and many of the perpetrators are not caught. But also a relatively minor crime does not justify occupying a prison cell for 25 years – save that for a murderer, or some other serious offender. Reparation to the victim, plus paying for any damage repairs and a month in home detention should be adequate.

At the other end of the scale, one might argue that due to a well noted inability and/or unwillingness of the judges of New Zealand to send criminals to jail and having a Parole Board that often makes incorrect decisions, does not assist the course of justice. New Zealand judges are notorious for making weak judgements in cases where either a top of the range fine and/or a lengthy spell in prison was the expectation of the New Zealand public when they examine the case.

There are good reasons to replace the Three Strikes law in New Zealand.

  1. The evidence from overseas is that it does not work – assaults in some places have increased because prisoners doing mandatory life prison time for serious offences know they are going to be in jail for the rest of their lives, so what do they have to lose from attacking a police officer or prison warden?
  2. The judge is supposed to be the one exercising discretion in the court house – how is making them hand down a mandatory life sentence for a third serious offence when reasonable law might justify only 10 years jail?
  3. Why are we copying the United States? Since when did American criminal law work effectively in New Zealand – Three Strikes is a quintessential American law. What is so hard about New Zealand law written by and for New Zealanders?
  4. The cost! We cannot afford a multi-billion dollar mega prison when the way the law is currently structured the rate of jailing is at an all time high.

So, I welcome Mr Little’s announcement. However I think I fit in best with the group of New Zealanders wondering what would replace it. Simply repealing it because it is an A.C.T. Party piece of legislation  is not enough and smacks of ideology. But will Mr Little enact the necessary wider ranging reform that is needed? It remains to be seen.

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