Reaction to compensation row challenges perceptions about released prisoners


Yesterday there was an article about a man who in 2000 was detained inappropriately in an isolation cell. John Vogel was made to spend 23 hours alone in an isolation cell without any contact – telephone, visitors or radio – and was only permitted an hour a day for showering and exercising.

Mr Vogel was found to have chronic depression which was exacerbated by a drug addiction. He asked for the isolation in an attempt to kick the drug habit. The law permits not more than 15 consecutive days in isolation. Mr Vogel was in solitary confinement for 21 days.

I do not condone Mr Vogel’s offending. Murder is a very serious offence to commit under any circumstances, and drug offending is heavily frowned upon as well. Understandably there is a very negative reaction when someone commits one or both of these things.

But when the corrections system goes too far and he is punished beyond what New Zealand law and New Zealand’s international obligations permit, the reaction of people on social media suggests that this is quite okay. The argument is that as a criminal he has lost all of his rights and some go so far as to suggest that the system is not going far enough.

One day in the future Mr Vogel will be released from prison. When prisoners are released from prison they need to have somewhere to live. They need an income and have some means of obtaining a source of income. Society likes to jail serious offenders for obvious reasons, but it does not like to acknowledge the fact that once a prisoner has done their jail time and the Parole Board deems him/her fit for release back into the community, there is no legal ground for continuing to detain a prisoner.

How does society want the prisoner to be released? I sometimes ask people this to see if they have considered what happens once a prisoner has done their time. Some people try to turn the question back on me by pointing out his offences, which is beside the point as the hypothetical prisoner I am talking about has done it and has to be released.

So how should a prisoner be released? If society don’t want him/her to be back in jail at their expense and the prisoner is fully reformed, then they deserve to be given a chance to rebuild their lives and start being useful members of society again. There will be employers who are prepared to give them a chance and community networks who are prepared to give them a go, but will society at large accept that hypothetical prisoner has done his/her time?

No one wants an angry prisoner, infuriated with society and a burning hatred of humans and the law to be released and hopefully the Parole Board will see the warning signs. In the event such people are released, it is perhaps a failure of the corrections system to not provide proper oversight to the Parole Board. Such prisoners are dangerous and can potentially commit much worse crimes than the ones that sent them to jail in the first place.

If an ex-prisoner is released and no support is in place, this presents a situation potentially as dangerous as releasing an already disgruntled one into society. Would people prefer that, or a released prisoner who is rebuilding his or her life, has renounced crime and is wanting to be a role model for other soon to be released prisoners?

I think I know the answer to that one.

The New Zealand social emergency created by National


As we move further into the first term of the new Government, it is starting to become clear that there is a significant crisis in New Zealand society. The issues fuelling this crisis are numerous and varied, and none started on the watch of the recently ousted National-led Government. But in nine years in office these symptoms advanced far enough that combined they now pose an immediate and direct threat to New Zealand society.

National has in effect created a social emergency. The failure to address despite repeated warnings that there were problem emerging with housing, health, social welfare and justice have combined to create conditions where the so called market has left behind sections of New Zealand society whose deprivation is feeding social decay.

The conditions created consist of a combination of contributing factors. They include but are not limited to:

  • Drug addled neighbourhoods with police struggling to contain the epidemic of methamphetamine, synthetic cannabis and other harmful substances
  • Absentee parents/caregivers and a break down of parental/caregiver responsibility
  • Rampant truancy and young people leaving school with no qualifications, and no jobs or training to go to
  • School children living in inadequate housing, constantly having to move and living in conditions that are not compliant with basic human rights or housing law
  • Housing rents eating up money for food, clothes, medical expense – children go to school hungry and/or distracted

The problems start in the home or at school, but often end in a police cell. The following is a brief synopsis of how a person might go downhill. I am not suggesting that all people in such circumstances will experience this – indeed there are many fantastic parents who care very much, who go without themselves and try to be a positive influence in their child’s life, but in socio-economically deprived neighbourhoods, this is a real issue.

In the first instance at home or school, they have no food and often start the day on an empty stomach, are irritable or distracted. A failure to be settled in one spot for any length of time will mean the child has trouble settling in at school, distracted by problems at home. Over time this may fuel other problems, because the student will start getting into trouble, picking fights, associating with the wrong crowd. At home the parent/caregiver might be working long hours to make sure there is enough money to pay rent and will not be at home at critical times such as when they have homework or need underage supervision, so the children start misbehaving. At school the teachers realize that the person or people in question have a discipline problem. Homework is not being done, and the student is disruptive, argumentative. It begins to escalate with children missing school and truancy officers picking them up. At this point, the child is at an intersection in their life. At this stage the choice is stark. The child unless there is substantial intervention by the parent, the school and potentially social social workers will either leave or wind up being expelled from school with poor prospects for the future.

It never needed to be like this. And the long term cost to society, the economy and the people who know the child are substantial. If s/he devolves into drugs, then a life of crime and prison awaits. If s/he tries to turn themselves around their past – especially if a criminal history is involved – may catch up with them and hinder their future development.

This is why there is a significant and dangerous poverty issue in New Zealand. It has the potential to fuel illegal substances, crime, violence and gangs, none of which are welcome or wanted. All of which are horrendously destructive and all of which we need to shut down.

Government to end “Three Strikes” law


Today Minister of Justice, Andrew Little announced that the Three Strikes law, which was presented to Parliament by the National-A.C.T. Government in 2009, will be replaced.

A.C.T and National have savaged the Government. A.C.T. leader David Seymour claimed Little has created the “evilest clean slate law”. He further said that it was a green light for offenders to go on to commit further serious crime because the deterrence of a harsh sentence would no longer be there.

Mr Seymour is jumping the gun. The announcement was that the law would go and that the legislation to repeal it would be presented to Parliament late next year. It did not say that Mr Little has created new legislation, when it was acknowledged no thought had yet been given to a replacement law. Mr Seymour further ignores the fact that a disproportionately harsh sentence is as dangerous in dealing with an offender in terms of rehabilitation and understanding what s/he did, as a weak sentence that fails to recognize the gravity of the offence/s.

I support its removal as the “Three Strikes” law has led – just like it has in the United States, where the inspiration for the law came from originally – to some grossly disproportionate sentences, such as the case of a prisoner who committed indecent assault in prison on his third strike and had the book thrown at him.

If the Three Strikes system is removed though, I do wonder what will replace it.

What I believe is more urgent is for the legislation governing sentencing to be amended. It is all very well to hand down a sentence, but to have it the accused then only do a fraction of it is to undermine the whole point of that sentence in the first place. For example, if someone commits murder and the sentencing judge hands down 20 years, but the accused is out in 10 years, where is the justice in that. The family and friends of the dead person will be understandably aggrieved by what has happened as they will never see their loved one/friend again. To then be told that the offender will be out after only serving half of the sentence will be seen as a miscarriage of justice.

This announcement is a positive one. However much wider reform is needed. Better allowance for the rights of victims needs to be made; sexual abuse victims need to have greater confidence in the justice system and the police – whilst the latter has made good progress in the last decade, there is still work to be done.

Cannabis referendum a chance for sanity


As part of their agreement with the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand, the Labour Party under Prime Minister designate Jacinda Ardern, has agreed to hold a referendum on cannabis. Whilst it will not happen until the latter part of the new Parliamentary term – possibly 2020 – the referendum which will be on whether or not legalize cannabis, comes as New Zealanders acknowledge that the “war on drugs” is not working and that it might be time for a new approach.

There will be some unequivocally opposed to cannabis being legitimized in any form. It will not matter whether it is the decriminalization of cannabis so that small amounts are acceptable, or legalizing the drug. The differences between decriminalization and legalization are significant and it would be true that there are people who do not understand the difference, either as a matter of being deliberately ignorant or or not having had it explained to them properly.

I have been of more conservative persuasion in the past on cannabis. But rather than view it as a criminal issue, I am starting to lean towards the view that addiction to cannabis is a health issue. Rather than criminalizing people and cannabis, I am now of the opinion that the money being pumped into dealing with minor scale cannabis offences should be diverted into helping those who have developed an addiction and setting up associated programmes.

Laws are just that. So are the courts where the sentences are handed down and the jails where the worst of them are carried out. None of them address the causes of addiction to cannabis in the first place, or seek to help anyone other than the victims of criminal offending.

The worst will offend no matter what happens. No matter how one helps them, punishes them or shows sympathy, determined offenders will offend. But what about those who were brought up in a culture of drugs, who have only ever known the debilitating effects that drugs have on families – you cannot blame them for not knowing better if they have not been shown better.

With synthetic cannabis reducing its victims to zombies, and an influx of liquid methamphetamine starting to make its presence felt, a change in how New Zealand is dealing with the lesser end of the narcotics scourge might just be what the doctor ordered. Now we just need to see if New Zealand agrees.

Make addressing violent crime a priority


So, another dairy has been robbed. An occurrence happening all too frequently the length and breadth of New Zealand with the perpetrators getting away just as frequently.

But the worst part of this horror show is the courts. Soft as butter judges playing namby pamby games with peoples lives and livelihoods. The conservative parts of society might call for a return to the gravel pits for such offenders, but this fails to address the core societal issues that are leading to these horrendous crimes in the first place. By this I am talking about the lack of role models in their lives and the presence of drugs; their failure in the school system and a lack of a job.

But at the same time the courts have a job to do and they are failing at it in an abject way. It is almost like in some cases the judges do not care any more. I find it hard to believe that human rights laws for children have advanced to the degree that some say they have and that as a result the judges somehow have their hands tied.

I wonder if part of the justice process, a judge has ever asked an offender what their ambitions in life are. I am certainly not suggesting showing sympathy, but almost none of these offenders have probably thought about where they want to go in life. Maybe – I could be totally wrong, but just assume for a moment I am not – they simply need someone in a position of authority to show them right from wrong. If they don’t care, then that is a different story.

So, what are some of the steps that need to be taken? Several steps:

  • For starters I think Civics/Legal Studies needs to be compulsory in Year 12. Students need to know how the law works because at some point they are going to have to deal with it, so they better learn.
  • A youth policing section needs to be established so that young people learn to work with the police and see that they will only be in their lives if they commit crime or are the victims of crime
  • Synthetic cannabis needs to be banned immediately and all shops given one weeks grace to hand over their stock – all in possession of it should be given an equally short grace period to hand over their private stock
  • Small amounts of cannabis should be decriminalized – police are wasting their time and resources dealing with anything under say 5 grams
  • Importers/dealers and manufacturers of illegal substances should have a 10 year starting jail sentence plus anything purchased using the profits of their criminal activity should be seized and sold – money raised goes to funding drug treatment; non New Zealanders should be deported and permanently barred from reentering

But none of this will work if there is not a co-ordinated approach involving the co-operation of the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Social Welfare and the Ministry of Education.

If a rise in tax is necessary to fund this, do it. Done properly, it will pay for itself in time.