Americanizing New Zealand prisons


I note that the calls for a radical overhaul of how our Corrections works are mounting. They sit against a backdrop of worsening crime suggesting our approach is not deterring criminals from committing offences, of rehabilitation programmes not working and a nation increasingly doubtful it will get the answers it needs. But could it be because the system we have is not really ours?

Over the years New Zealand has copied a number of American concepts for justice. In doing so it appears to have passed over our own ability to establish our own framework. And as they have taken shape, the individual concepts have come to create a system environment that is not conducive to reforming criminals. There are some stand out examples. The three strikes law introduced by A.C.T. Member of Parliament David Garrett was enacted in 2010. It is based on a controversial American law that mandates a life sentence for a third offence even if it its totally disproportionate to the crime committed.

The three strikes law has all kinds of failings and has led to a range of injustices in the United States. However the insistence of the community for a tough sentence that does not really fit the crime, means someone who committed something relatively minor like breaking into someone’s house as their third offence is now going to jail for the rest of their lives. When coupled with the internal environment of a jail where drugs, violent offences against staff and other prisoners, it runs the risk of undoing the punishment and making the defendant feel like the system is against them.

Another aspect of American justice that bothers me is the tendency to view prisoners as incapable of rehabilitation. In other words they are, despite the Judeao-Christian principle of forgiveness, people who the system has deemed to be permanently violent and dangerous to society. This sets a dangerous precedent for youth offenders who might have come from broken families with no role models to look up to for guidance and now see or perceive the system to be against them being able to learn their lesson. It gets more dangerous still because the way is now open to create a “crime family”, in whose psyche the system is somehow out to destroy them at all costs – the family have children who grow up around drugs, guns and violence and do not get adequate or appropriate schooling; their academic ambition does not exist and they leave school with no qualifications, no idea how to get work.

A third aspect of American law in New Zealand that has failed is the “War on Drugs”. The war has involved the F.B.I. and C.I.A. as well as other agencies whose task has been to intercept and destroy the drug supply network. It has seen them operate in countries such as Colombia, Peru, Brazil. It has seen them aggressively pursue the Mexican drug lords, despite massive and often gruesome retaliation that has not spared law enforcement or the general public. I want to be clear now that this is absolutely not suggesting we just walk away from policing the heavy drugs like methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin or synthetic cannabis – absolutely not, as those who deal in the drugs, manufacture them and distribute them need to be firmly shutdown. They need to be sentenced to sentences that make the whole business not worth continuing. But that cannot be done in an increasingly Americanized system that seems to be about punishment at all costs.

New Zealand has been a trail blazer in showing the world how to make ourselves nuclear free, in giving women the vote and environmental resource management law. We can be a trail blazer on this too and trust our instincts that New Zealand justice will not work if based on a system not purpose built and designed for New Zealand conditions.

A question of justice


I have a question for you all. The question is one that has been bugging me for some time, but which in recent months has become more immediate, more urgent. It is a question of justice.

Over the last few years I have become increasingly frustrated with the New Zealand justice system as I am sure many others have too. Our reasons for our frustration will be many and varied, but deep down they all point to the same problems:

  • a failure of the courts to hand down sufficiently grave sentences
  • a lack of acceptance of what they have done
  • a failure to prepare those soon to be released for the post jail world – if they have no money or housing to go to, a potential life of crime await

My frustration stems from watching the rising tide of people who think that Police chases are games. They are not and every time someone is killed or injured because they ran away from a police check point, the Police have to be able to explain what went on to their superiors. But not only that, they have to explain it to the family(ies) of the deceased/injured as well.

The frustration, when I try to boil it down to its basic points stems from two separate issues. One is that there does not seem to be a working deterrent to the problem – i.e. something that would stop or discourage people from running before they even considered it, namely a short period of guaranteed jail time of say 48 hours to see how the offender reacts. To many the New Zealand justice system’s ability and willingness to dispense satisfactorily strong sentences is a joke and those handed down are viewed as being slapped with a wet bus ticket.

But it is not just car chases that make me wonder what the problem in the justice system is. How much crime is driven by socio-economic issues? My guess would be quite a bit. From a very early age, way back when a boy is young and just starting to learn about the world and society around him, too many are missing the adult male role model in their lives and the huge difference having a real male role model can have. If or when the boy is subject to bullying will he decide to fight back and possibly suffer disciplinary action that sets in motion a downward spiral or will he have second thoughts?

Maybe it stems from poverty and not going to school on a full stomach, thereby becoming disruptive in class, because the “second brain” of the body is not having due attention paid to it. Maybe it stems from a lack of love at home with no one being at home when a student gets home from school and so they go out and fall in with the wrong crowd. The brain in ones head is the academic one, but a persons stomach in some respects acts as a emotional brain. Between them they determine what might be described as emotional intelligence.

Maybe, as the case I am about to describe, is simply one of no boundaries being set from an early age and now had that aforementioned feeling of being bullet proof. A 13 year old dying in a crash caused by trying to flee the police was one whose caregiver had described as being out of control.

But, okay, lets assume a person does go to jail and do their time in full. They come out genuinely remorseful and admit to the past offences at job interviews, and then cannot get a job because no one will hire someone with a criminal record. Meanwhile the recently released prisoner has to feed, clothe and do all the other things a person needs to do to live, but cannot find the money to fund it all.

And so, the man who had turned his life around, and owned up to his past is now being denied the means to move forward in life and get away from his negative influences. Thus begins a cycle that I suspect is being played out all too frequently among our former jail bird population.

So, what do we do about this?

The need to respect due process in New Zealand courts


In the nearly one week that has passed since the murder of Grace Millane, there has been an understandably big out pouring of grief. Her murder shocked people.

Understandably there are a lot of people angry about the murder of Grace Millane. People want Grace’s alleged murderer brought to justice and everyone has their own opinion – which they are perfectly entitled to – about what fate Ms Millane’s murderer, whoever it might be, should suffer.

BUT many of these people also want his name suppression wiped. Many of them think that the judge made a bad mistake. I have reservations myself, but they are countered by the fact that the accused has as much a right to a fair trial as the victim has to justice. So people are now resorting to Google searches to find out his name. 50,000 New Zealanders have done it.

These potentially violate New Zealand criminal law. They potentially threaten to derail the trial before it even starts. But I wonder how many of these people doing this will accept that and desist.

Except that it is not just New Zealanders doing it. Google is accused of having aided the violations by allowing the prominent placing of articles in its search engine hits telling us who *allegedly* did it. So too are British newspapers including The Daily Mail.

There are people calling for the death penalty – separate subject – as if the accused has already been convicted, when in actual fact a plea has yet to be entered and will not be until 23 January 2019 at the earliest. On this day the accused will reappear before the court. They seem to forget that a trial has yet to be set down, much less held. We do not know if the alleged murder is even the alleged murder. Right now he is – for all we know – innocent.

Being Judge, Jury and Executioner before a plea has even been entered is premature, prejudicial and along with the violations of the suppression orders, potentially threatens the whole trial. One cannot have justice for the victim if the trial is aborted due to interference or the absence of the conditions necessary for it to be fair and impartial.

I want to see justice for Ms Millane and her family and best friends whose lives at the moment I imagine have been turned up side down and there is no way to undo it. However this does not come at the expense of needing to follow “due process”, a term whose use when I write it in a comment has caused much anger and negativity. Due process is the act of carrying out the necessary procedures to ensure a fair and impartial trial that is not hijacked by individuals or interests in the name of vigilante justice.

So, my message is simple as it is blunt. Hold your horses and put away the knives. You do not know yet who did it and I bet you would not want to be found to have judged an innocent man otherwise.

People jumping to conclusions on Grace Millane – Give due process a chance


On 01 December 2018 a 22 year old English tourist named Grace Millane disappeared in Auckland. For a few days hope was held that Miss Millane might be found alive and that she had simply got lost or gone walkabout. These hopes were dashed on 07 December when the New Zealand Police announced that they were looking for a person of interest. Several hours later, they announced that this person was under arrest. Then yesterday, the worst fears were confirmed: the case had been upgraded to a homicide inquiry and the suspect was charged with her murder.

Right from the start on social media, especially on Facebook people hoped and prayed for her safe return which is completely understandable. When it was announced that the suspect had been charged with murder, the hopes and prayers not surprisingly turned to anger. People have every right to be horrified and angry that it happened in New Zealand, a country thought to be safe for people to visit. They have every right to want want justice for Grace Millane.

But the number of people who are trying to be the judge, the jury and the executioner before the accused is even brought to court is quite serious. The number of people who think the accused is guilty before any plea has been entered tells me that many don’t care about due process and I wonder if they even know what it is?

I have been criticized by many on Facebook for insisting on due process, but I make no apologies. I want justice done, but it is not going to be done by social media. It needs to happen under a court of law before a judge and – if this goes to trial – a jury.

So, let us look at what sections of the relevant legislation deal with due process in a legal setting.

A person detained or arrested by the Police or other arresting authority has rights under Sections 23-25 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, 1990. Section 23 rights deal with the period immediately after being arrested. Section 24 deals with those who have been charged with an offence – this is where I think the Police are probably at with the suspect in the case of Miss Millane. Section 25 deals with the rights of someone being sent to trial.

As for the victim of a crime, their rights are set down in the Victims Code. The victims code is covered under the Victims Rights Act 2002. I assume that New Zealand Police are applying this to Miss Millane’s family who must be going through the most harrowing moments of their lives at the moment, sick to death at the thought that their daughter is gone.

But due process exists for good reasons and are a mark of a functional justice system in any first world country. That includes New Zealand.

So, let us put this suspect to trial. Let us find out what happened, whether he had accomplices who assisted and whether any evidence has been destroyed in an attempt to pervert justice. Let us find out about Miss Millane’s final hours, and why – just assuming for a moment it was him – he was driven to murder a tourist on holiday in New Zealand.

But above all, let us give due process a chance to run its course, because if it turns out there were other people involved, then the blame is not totally on the accused. If there were other significant circumstances involved we need to know about them. Let us do this properly so that two things happen:

  1. The perpetrator or perpetrators are tried, sentenced appropriately
  2. Miss Millane’s family get the justice that they totally deserve

Neither can happen if due process is not followed.

Time for an overhaul of New Zealand’s judiciary


I am – and I am sure many New Zealand readers are too – becoming aware of a growing frustration with the New Zealand court system and the sentences it hands down. It is something that has been growing in the last few years despite having a centre right Government that one thought might have hardened up on criminals. It is something growing despite an overwhelming referendum result in 1999 demanding tighter penalties.

Barely a month seems to go by without some new wrong happening. It might be a discharge without conviction for someone who admitted a crime. It might be another car chase gone wrong because the penalty for fleeing the cops is not high enough to make people think twice.

Over a period of years I have noticed something consistent with each complaint: the sentence handed down is too weak to do its job. The victim is left feeling like their rights and well being are less important to the judicial system than those of the perpetrator.

In the last two years several notable cases have come to light which highlight these concerns:

  1. A man with 47 child pornography charges is discharged without conviction
  2. A man with 12 drunk driving charges and 4 deaths to his name is not jailed
  3. Police chase ends in death – threat of instant jail for a short period would deter many
  4. A judge discharges without conviction a man despite him assaulting his partner, daughter and a man he believed his partner was romantically involved with

In trying to address how to fix these problems one has to keep an open mind about the potential causes. It is possible that the Sentencing Act has been so badly undermined that the Act no longer works. If that is the case then the Act needs to be overhauled or completely replaced. Certainly many sentences prescribed under the Act do not seem to be fit for purpose in a 21st Century society.

I personally think the range of sentences available needs to be overhauled. But I am aware that if that happens, so must the ability and willingness of the judges to hand them down. And here is where the strongest evidence of a major problem lies. More on that later.

Another possibility is that the training of judges has become too limp. I have no idea what is involved in the training of a judge in terms dispensing sentences, but there must surely be guidelines as to how to treat various types of sentencing scenarios, e.g for someone who committed aggravated robbery causing injury.

Whatever the case, I get the distinct feeling that much of the crime being committed is simply happening because the sentencing done by judges, irrespective of the actual regime they work under, amounts to wet bus tickets. The guilty person or people simply laugh it off, do their sentence and go on with the criminal activity as if no charges were ever brought against their name. This was backed by evidence in 2016 that many burglars caught do not get jail time and not one has been sentenced to the maximum 10 years or 14 years for aggravated burglary.

Minister of Justice Andrew Little has a difficult task ahead of him. His promise to overhaul how justice is dealt in New Zealand is laudable, especially if it reduces our incarceration rates. However this would need to address the widely held views that New Zealand judges are simply too lenient and limp wristed. Mr Little will need to work with both those who deal with prisoners and those who deal with victims in equal measure.