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.

The case for an overhaul of New Zealand’s prisons


It was mentioned yesterday that overcrowding in New Zealand prisons is bringing the penal system to breaking point. Whilst New Zealand does not have the large scale problems of the United States and other countries, the problems posed by the prison system as it currently stands are plenty bad enough.

One can break prisoners down into several groups. There will be a small group whose offending are a symptom of larger problems in their lives – addictions that wound up needing a new source of income to fund their lifestyle, which might have started off as a minor experiment that eventually became all consuming. The range of backgrounds from which these people come might be quite varied, with some coming from normal or relatively normal backgrounds whilst others

If these people can be made to see the harm they are doing and shown how to get help, they might have a future. Acknowledging what they have done is central to the assistance that they get.

Many of the offenders who go to prison know that they have committed a significant wrong – whether they admitted it or not is another thing all together. It might have been a spur of the moment thing such as fleeing from the Police and crashing into another vehicle or an argument that for whatever reason suddenly turned injurious or fatal.

Many of these people will be genuinely remorseful. These are the people who are perhaps least likely to re-offend and deserve a second chance. They are the ones who will probably seek restorative justice opportunities with any victims. They are the ones who might be in stable jobs and have supportive families or spouses who will make sure that they stay on track and help them avoid repeating the circumstances that made them commit the offence in the first place.

There will always be a small group of prisoners who no matter what happens to them will re-offend. These are the ones who need to be locked up indefinitely. These are the offenders who have no care for society, no respect for individuals or property. Among these are the ones who offended for the thrill of it and only regret being caught. This is the group that should have no prospect of release.

These offenders have a high risk of re-offending. They pose a significant threat to the community and monitoring them using tracking devices has a high risk of failing.

The solution of “lock ’em up” is clearly not working in many cases. Too many people are going into jail and coming out in a more dangerous psychological state than that in which they entered. Over crowding of cells just creates an environment where those who are genuinely remorseful or otherwise trying to clean themselves up are being negatively affected.

The privatization of the prisons was a particularly bad idea, and using a foreign multinational company (Serco)to run them was even worse as their accountability was nil. Serco should have been sacked as the contracted company once the organized fights in Mt Eden Prison had been exposed.

Furthermore simply building more prisons, the previous National-led Government proposed to do, just adds to a burgeoning penal system that does not necessarily work. Fixing the prisons is just part of the solution, which will require an inter-agency response. No one ministry is capable of fixing this mess on their own. It will require the input of the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Police as well as Department of Corrections.

Whether this Government will understand this is one thing. Acting on that recognition is another thing altogether.

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.

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.

Addressing banking sector concerns in N.Z.


I remember the onset of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis all too clearly. In the space of about two years 31 separate New Zealand finance companies crashed and burned, taking about N.Z.$3 billion worth of savings with them. The crash of so many companies and the resulting fallout cost numerous jobs, led to criminal trials for fraudulent activity and caused a loss of trust in banks. Nine years later, not having learnt much from the previous crash New Zealand, like the world at large is at risk of another, possibly bigger, crash.

The causes of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis are well documented. In the United States lax banking regulations led to the failure of Fannie Mae’s, Freddie Mac’s, Lehman Brothers amongst others . Hundreds of billions of dollars was wiped from the value of the U.S. economy when Lehman Brothers collapsed. The bailout plan authorized by U.S. President George W. Bush cost about U.S.$700 billion to enact. Following these collapses President Barak Obama passed legislation called Dodd Frank Act which enabled large scale reform of the banking sector, in terms of transparency, tightening up reporting requirements and protecting whistle blowers.

In New Zealand the following are just some of the financial institutions that failed in 2006-2010 (N.Z.$)¹:

  • Capital Merchant Finance ($190 million)
  • South Canterbury Finance ($1.6 billion)
  • Provincial Finance ($296 million with $273 million recovered)
  • Bridgecorp ($467 million)

¹67 went into liquidation or receivership, or entered moratoria all up between 2006 and 2012

I believe that legislation needs to be passed in two respects to bring accountability to the banking sector, but also institute a better code of practice than the one that exists. Elsewhere I have mentioned the need for better whistle blower protection. This is to ensure that the fate of whistle blowers at the Ministry of Transport who exposed fraudster Joanne Harrison and lost their jobs for doing so, is not repeated.

But perhaps the biggest reforms that I think need to be made are to how individuals enter and exit the financial industry, and the range of tools that can be used in dealing with significant breaches. We have the Financial Markets Authority investigating significant breaches, which is well and fine. But, given the size of some of the aforementioned collapses and the fact that individuals who had leading roles in precipitating said collapses were handed what I think were very light sentences, I think the law needs an overhaul.

For small fraud (less than N.Z.$250,000), claims can be dealt with in the District Court and the High Court deals with larger claims. We saw out of the court trials arising from the collapses of companies like Bridgecorp that in many cases the sentences were too light. The sentences did not appear to take into account ill gotten assets such expensive cars. Nor did they appear to stop the defendants from working in the industry again. The sentences should be proportionate to the size of the losses incurred by the investors. Such a scale could look like this:

  • Category E (dealt with in District Court) up to $250,000 = suspension of trading license + fine (up to $250,000) or jail sentence (up to 2 years)
  • Category D – $250,000 to $10 million = loss of financial trading licence + confiscation of luxury assets or fine (up to $500,000) or jail sentence (up to 5 years)
  • Category C – $10 million to $100 million = loss of financial trading licence + confiscation of luxury assets + fine (up to $1 million) or jail sentence (up to 15 years)
  • Category B – $100 million to $250 million = loss of financial trading licence + plus fine (up to $2 million) + jail (up to 25 years)
  • Category A – $250 million+ = loss of licence + fine (up to $4 million) + jail (up to 40 years) + confiscation of luxury assets + loss of passport

Sound harsh?

Not as harsh as thousands of investors having their retirement plans and anything that they might have been relying on their investments to fund now having nothing to show for their efforts. Not as harsh as hundreds of people working for these forms in good faith finding themselves without a job because of the collapse. Nor as harsh as any community finding that sponsorship of community events and projects have just gone up in smoke.