The Law and Order Referendum

and other related issues in New Zealand


The Middleton Effect

See Sensible Sentencing online at www.safe-nz.org.nz

Mark Middleton is now regarded by many in New Zealand as a hero, and seems to have widespread, if not universal support. It needs to be kept in mind however that his public threats to Paul Dally were against the law, however understandable they may have been! It is true that Mark Middleton acted out of desperation in an attempt to get someone in the "justice" system to listen. It also is true that charging him was necessary, the legal system could hardly have done otherwise faced with the undeniably illegal and lurid threats made to Dally.

We believe his motives were not to trigger vigilante justice or a lynch mob mentality as some commentators have claimed, but to spur public debate and engender a movement for change. It is evident from this article in the Herald a few days ago that his motives are more complex and far-reaching than many observers have assumed.

There is no doubt that grief played a substantial part also.

Whether one views him as a hero or a fool, or somewhere in between, will depend on the regard in which one holds our current legal system and its practitioners. We would suspect that most people tend considerably more towards the former view than the latter, going on what we see in the newsgroups and elsewhere. But it will also depend on whether one considers that he has or is likely to achieve his goals by his admittedly illegal means.

As we see it, he appears to have had four distinct objectives, not necessarily in order of importance;
1) To challenge the current legal system (and force the sentencing of offenders such as Dally to be reviewed in light of oft-voiced public opinion
2) To keep Paul Dally in prison, and ensure that his life sentence really is a life sentence.
3) To prevent Paul Dally from reoffending
4) To raise awareness of how severely defective and dysfunctional our legal system is much of the time where it comes to criminal matters, and trigger a movement or groundswell of public opinion to remedy this problem.

We need to consider how successful he has been in fulfilling these objectives. With the first, he at first appeared to meet with little success, until when Phil Goff announced that he wanted much longer sentences for serious violent offenders such as Dally, see this story. However there are still underlying issues within the current system, with the lack of accountability and the disregard it often appears to hold victims, which are yet to be fully addressed.

Mark was not worried by the prospect of imprisonment

With the second objective, he may have met with a little success, at this stage it is difficult to tell. The Herald article clearly shows that Mark was not worried by the prospect of imprisonment, indeed it was a sacrifice he was ready and willing to make for the greater good, knowing full well that Dally is likely to offend again. However, the parole board is at least under considerable public pressure not to release Dally now, and know that they are under stern and critical public scrutiny. This is good.

The third objective is largely, but not entirely dependent upon the second. Of course while Dally is in prison he cannot reoffend, this is the most important reason for imprisonment (not punishment or revenge or even deterrence). But even if he is released, Mark's threats, plus the implied threat from many others, will do much to deter him from reoffending. Dally knows that he will be watched by a hostile and vigilant community wherever he goes. This is also good, should this scenario arise. We hope it does not.

...they will become an ongoing and festering thorn in the side of current policy makers...

It is in the fourth objective that Mark seems to have met with the greatest success. The publicity, and concomitant embarrassment for those in charge of our legal system has been considerable. It has provoked widespread debate, not least on the newsgroups, and we feel it will become something of a landmark case in New Zealand justice matters. We note that this has been christened on the nz.politics newsgroup as the Middleton effect.

A movement does indeed appear to be building up around him and others such as Greg Stenbeck, Henk Bouma etc, to press for changes and reforms long asked for by most New Zealanders. We predict that they will become an ongoing and festering thorn in the side of current policy makers until either the policies, or, more likely, the policy makers, are changed for others more in tune with the requirements of the public. Note: this is indeed coming to pass. See Sensible Sentencing, an organisation which his actions helped to precipitate into existence.

Hopefully... the public will recognise the power that they do hold to make change happen.

Furthermore, the protests that he triggered had a much more significant effect - it seems that they not only influenced Phil Goff into some action, but more importantly, they seem to have influenced the judges' decision. This is immensely important, and signals a paradigm shift in the public perception of our legal system as something that is immune to pressure to change from those whom it is meant to serve. Hopefully we will see more of this, and the public will recognise the power that they do hold to make change happen.

As for the matter of Middleton's sentencing, the legal system is in something of a no-win situation here. Do they free him or give him an extremely light sentence, thereby creating an undesirable precedent and encouraging others to similarly challenge the system? Or do they bring upon him the full force of the law, thereby bringing upon them and the government renewed - and lasting - public wrath.

In fact, a third option could have been utilised, that would have both satisfied those that demand that Mark Middleton be dealt with as anyone else would be who makes public death threats, but also addresses the concerns of the wider public. That would have been to imprison Middleton, but also to lengthen Dally's sentence proportionately, i.e. for every day or week Middleton does, Dally does an extra year. We strongly suspect Middleton would be happy to sacrifice a small portion of his life in such a manner given such an outcome.

...shock our stagnant, inwards looking and self-reverential legal system out of its complacency.

Mark Middleton's methods were unsavoury to some, but sometimes one needs to do something a bit unpleasant and shocking to shock our stagnant, inwards looking and self-reverential legal system out of its complacency. How long have we been hearing people complain about the deficiencies of the justice system - years, and little of substance has been done. Middleton's actions have been like slapping someone around to keep them from falling asleep when they have overdosed on sleeping pills - ugly, and unpleasant, but the alternative is worse.

Mark Middleton does not really want lynch mobs either in his more sober moments. We believe that all he wants is a justice system that actually does it's job, and it is this desire that is shared by all of his followers. With a justice system that actually does it's job, there will actually be less chance of a lynch mob mentality where the public becomes judge, jury and executioner.

And perhaps in future those in power could avert such troubles for themselves by properly sentencing offenders like Dally to preventative detention for life, and ensuring that is exactly what it means. Then there would be no further martyrs, and less tragedies of the Kylie Jones type. We would all be winners under such a scenario, all except the criminals themselves.

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