The Law and Order Referendum
and other related issues in New Zealand
Good News (and a little bad)
Sensible Sentencing are now up and running in Christchurch and several smaller centres. A pilot organisational meeting has been held in Auckland, and there will be a branch set up there soon. Call 0900 SAFENZ to join. Garth McVicars and some of the other Trustees have already managed to meet with MP's, with positive noises being made. It appears that the general consensus amongst most of the politicians now is that offender-centric philosophies are a failure, and that victim-centric ideas are now in the ascendancy,
The ideas of those such as Barry Hart, Peter Williams etc are seen as having "had their turn", and in the political sphere at least, victim advocacy groups now have more influence and say than ever before. Most of the ideas of the last 30-40 years are now acknowledged as having caused more problems than they ever solved, and are seen as no longer relevant or useful.
This is similar to what has already happened in the US, where victim-centric philosophies have well and truly taken hold in some states, and where, funnily enough crime rates have dropped by some 15% and are still dropping, New York being a good example.
Of course, this doesn't mean that rehabilitation, restorative justice programmes etc have been abandoned, just that these things are being directed more to first/second offenders where they are most cost effective. We, along with VOICE and Sensible Sentencing are in favour of such programmes, as long as public safety is also addressed by locking serious violent offenders up long term. Those in power now are recognising the fact that leaving public frustration with the legal system unaddressed merely exacerbates the lynch-mob mentality.
All it needs now is for this to actually filter though to the legal system, where offender-centric philosophies still hold sway. Then we will see some real reductions in crime, as in the US in some states and in the Northern Territories in Australia.
Mark Middleton has put his support behind the new Sensible Sentencing Group which is campaigning for longer sentences for hardcore offences. They had a successful meeting of some 70 people in Hamilton on the 26th of April, and plan to hold further meetings around the country.
There have been some indications in recent months that this government, or at least one minister, Phil Goff, has decided that listening to what the public asked for might actually be a rather good idea. The latest initiative has been the Sentencing and Parole Act, described in depth in this Herald article and also here. The Briefing Paper is also available.
While not without its flaws, for instance its reliance on the judiciary to make satisfactory decisions, and the fact that it is not retrospective, it does make many important advances, such as making it possible to keep an offender imprisoned indefinitely, raising the minimum non-parole period for more serious murder cases to 17 years from 10, lowering the minimum age at which preventative detention can be imposed to 18 from 21, and making criminals serving life or preventative detention wait five years between parole applications, rather than one.
Reparation to victims will also be extended to cover physical harm. As Norm Withers stated, this legislation, if it makes it into law intact, will be an important step towards achieving the objectives of the referendum.
In another encouraging development, the Law Commission is looking at overturning our antiquated and obsolete "double jeopardy" rule which prevents someone being tried twice for the same crime.
However, they still only recommended second trials under extremely limited and restrictive circumstances, unlike many European countries, such as Germany. Even the English themselves, from whom we inherited our justice system, have amended this archaic rule (it is almost a thousand years old, well overdue for a change!), and are looking at further changes.
The same commission has also recommended that majority verdicts be permitted in addition to the unanimous verdicts required currently. This would hugely reduce the incidence of hung juries, such as that in the recent trial of the wife of a Samoan tatooist.
This issue is also examined in further depth here. Majority verdicts are already in use in many Australian states, and have been in England and Wales since 1967. Even Margaret Wilson who misjudged so badly in the Mangaroa Prison debacle has put her support behind this, showing that she has obviously recognised the wisdom of listening to the public.
A huge amount of public attention has been focused on the issue of law and order and sentencing by Mark Middleton and his court case. In a reaction to the public furore, Phil Goff has promised to re-examine sentencing for offenders like Paul Dally, and also look at deferring parole hearings when it is clear there is no chance of or reason for parole to be granted. Matt Robson has been strangely silent throughout the whole affair....
ACT MP Steve Franks also wrote this excellent piece recently for the Listener. He also contributed this brilliant piece for The Herald late last year.
Phil Goff has recently announced new legislation giving victims greater rights to be heard in court and have legal protection. Victims will be able to plead for offenders to stay in prison rather than being bailed, an important advance. Victims will also be informed about release, parole, and other offender movements for a wider range of crimes.
These are good moves in the right direction, although the right of victims to counselling, compensation/reperation or even just courtesy still remain to be enshrined into law. So the first components of the referendum question have not yet been fully responded to. All the same, this is encouraging progress, may there be more of the same.
Goff is also looking at introducing legislation surprisingly similar to Brian Neeson's Degrees of Murder Bill of a few years ago. The law changes he proposes involve longer sentences for murderers who torture or sexually abuse their victims. On the other hand, he also proposes clemency in the form of much shorter sentence where circumstances warrant it, such as in the case of Janine Albury-Thomson, the woman who strangled her autistic daughter after being driven over the edge by years of looking after her without assistance.
These are sound and worthwhile proposals, as the distinction needs to be made, in both directions. Phil Goff has clearly seen that there are differing degrees and types of murder that merit quite different levels of response. Let us hope that the rest of Parliament share his clear vision on this.
The longer home invasion sentence are now starting to bite, with a few rapists going away for more than fifteen years. This is good news indeed, but we could be doing even better. Other good news is that the Porirua Police have recognized the power of the Net and are putting it to good use, see their page on the Mongrel Mob on their excellent site. This site has made news around the world, including the prestigious Wired magazine. It is undoubtably the future of Policing operations, enabling people to ultimately send information, pictures, and maybe even video clips to the Police anonymously.
The Herald have won their name suppression case regarding Peter Lewis, the billionaire who brought some pot into the country during the America's Cup. The actual offence was utterly trivial, but this case has important and far reaching implications for justice in this country. In winning, the Herald has established that name suppression should not be granted unless there is some pressing imperative to do so. This will usually because the victim has requested it.
The final ruling also acknowledges another reality; that name suppression is largely an anachronism in this day and age anyway. Peter Lewis's name was all over the newsgroups within hours of the original case, and was also published on a couple of websites. As more and more people go online, it becomes more likely that an outraged victim or family member will simply publish an offenders name in this manner should name suppression be granted against their will. The new legislation announced recently by Phil Goff does allow for victims to have input into name suppression now, and victims can request for it to be lifted, an acknowledgement that it is the victim who must come first.
It is easy to post anonymously to newsgroups, anonymiser sites exist specifically for this purpose. And many websites are hosted outside the jurisdiction of our courts, in the U.S. and elsewhere - and many of them are free. Trying to censor websites is not easy, as the Health Department discovered with the cigar shop site, and the Chinese government is also finding to its consternation. Information wants to be free, and as the old proverb goes, the net treats censorship as damage and routes around it...
Phil Goff has been listening to public opinion, and has made some promising statements. He has instigated a review of sentencing, although he is not fully convinced of the benefits of minimum sentences as yet. His realism about our bail laws is refreshing, too, although perhaps the 14 offence cutoff point for bail is a bit on the generous side.
It would be nice to see more progress on this. Still, he is most definitely moving in a positive and constructive direction, and needs encouragement and a show of public support for the moves he has made to date. On the other hand, his responses to the public have sometimes left something to be desired sometimes...
Most impressive of all is his willingness to wade in and give direction to the Judiciary. Now this seems to upset some people, but it should be remembered that the Judiciary are public servants, in much the same way as Christine Rankin of WINZ noteriety and others who have been subject to criticism by their respective ministers when they have failed to perform. And certainly, the public is far from happy with the unresponsiveness of our judges and the justice system to the public, whom they are supposed to be serving
If the Judiciary don't like being told how to do their job, then perhaps they should do it better, and reflect the oft expressed views of a public of whom they are the highly paid employees. If they hand down light sentences for appalling crimes, that outrage the victims and the public, then they cannot expect any sympathy if they start getting told what to do by Phil Goff or others. Phil Goff's excellent speech on this subject is here.
George Hawkins also shows promise, representing as he does a less affluent electorate, and so being more realistic about the true effects of crime. To his credit he is also aware that minorities are more often than not the victims of violent crime, as demonstrated in this speech to the Asian Community in West Auckland recently. His promise of a crackdown on burglary, with 24 hour responses, will also be productive if carried out, as often burglars and violent offenders are the one and the same.
A primary problem remains, in that the Police Force is not sufficiently resourced, particularly in manpower, to be able to carry out these policies effectively. This Government has not yet indicated a willingness to increase frontline Police numbers, although at least we no longer have INCIS sucking up money.
There are still many other laws that need modification or replacement, such as those dealing with juvenile offenders, and others mentioned in the Law Reforms Needed section of this site. George Hawkins' words, however constructive, need to be backed by actions before we can honestly say he is an improvement on those before him as Minister of Police.
The same proviso of course holds with Phil Goff as Minister of Justice, the words need to be backed with actions, if the quality of life for victims and all law abiding New Zealanders is to improve. Victim Support have for years been grossly under resourced, and the work is still largely done by volunteers, and the resources provided by corporate donors, rather than the Government.
It is very different overseas, particularly the USA, take a look at some of the huge and obviously well backed Victim Support Groups and their websites on the Links page and compare them with ours... This is one area where some more Government backing could make a huge difference, and it is well deserved and overdue.
On the other hand of course, there is Matt Robson, of sex in prisons fame. May his words NOT be backed with actions! This does seem unlikely at this point, as he seems to be an embarrassment not only to this Government, but to his own party the Alliance. Jim Anderton was swift to dismiss Matt Robson's ludicrous sex in prisons proposal, and rightly so.
Realistically the chances of this coming to pass are extremely remote, as Matt Robson seems to be the only one silly enough to fly a kite like this in the face of a hurricane of public opposition. However, it does have to be asked why someone so enormously out of touch with public feeling has been put in the relatively high profile position of Minister of Corrections.