The Law and Order Referendum

and other related issues in New Zealand


The case for Longer Sentences ( for violent offenders)

The most important function of prison is to protect the people outside the prison from those inside.

This does imply two things;

One: imprisonment of non-violent offenders should be avoided where possible, unless their offending is of a nature such that the public needs to protected at all costs, AND it has been repeated many times. There are a few instances where a violent offence may be the outcome of a singular, one off type situation, or of extreme provocation, and the offender has no previous criminal history. Such offenders are not generally a threat to the public, and there is no real point in imprisoning them.

Two : First offenders should be offered a comprehensive rehabilitation programme. In most cases these could also be offered to second offenders also. It should be made abundantly clear that the only alternative to this is prison. Not many will take this option, those that do must have a mentality such that they will be a danger outside a prison anyway!

It is true that the cost of imprisonment is high. But the only thing that costs more than imprisoning a dangerous repeat offender is NOT imprisoning them! The hidden costs of an offence are far higher than the loss or damage initially incurred at the time of the offence.

The financial and emotional cost of such offences as serious assault, rape, or drink-drive fatalities is very high, and often continues down the years after a single offence, let alone a number of them. In addition, there is a reduction or loss of the victim's productivity, and of those associated with them. See this analysis of the Cost of Imprisonment versus the Cost of Release here.

The maximum for rape is 20 years, yet the average sentence is just 8 years

Recent statistics show that aggravated robbery has increased by 102% since 1988. The maximum is 14 years, yet the average sentence is just 4 years. The maximum for rape is 20 years, yet the average sentence is just 8 years - a sick joke.

Recently a serial rapist was put on preventative detention after committing numerous brutal rapes, with parole in 10 years, yet the the maximum sentence is 20 years.It has to be asked: what does someone have to do to get the maximum. This is why there is a need for minimum sentences, as a benchmark for certain violent crimes.

The sentences that are passed should also be cumulative rather than concurrent as at present. There should also be some curtailment of the application of parole provisions to sentences handed down as at present, often despite strong opposition from police and victims or their advocates or families. People have a civil right to safety from violent crime in their homes and workplaces.

For further information, look at these links;
Prisons do reduce Crime
Cost/Benefit Analysis of Prisons
Incapacitating Career Criminals Lowers Crime Rate
And for something local, here's Reducing Crime Pays

This logically takes us to the next step; a "Three Strikes and you're Out" type law.

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"Three Strikes and You're Out"

...it has been used with spectacular success in Northern Territories, Australia.

This law has been put in place to good effect in a number of states in the U.S., and is now under consideration in a number of other countries. Closer to home, it has been used with spectacular success in Northern Territories, Australia. True, it has not been without its critics, and it has sometimes been used in a heavy handed manner in California, with the result that a few offenders who probably do not constitute a serious threat to society have ended up in prison long term.

However, even so, it has been very effective in reducing crime there. Here's the proof! The notorious case of the "gentleman" (the word used in the widest sense) who took pizza off a child after two other more serious offences seems at first glance to have been a misapplication of this law. However, a more in depth look at this gentlemans past reveals that perhaps the Three Strikes Law was in fact working as intended...

There are a number of considerations that need to be addressed. Firstly, as mentioned in The Case for Longer Sentences violent offenders, or those who constitute an ongoing threat to society are the ones to whom this law should apply. Secondly, there should be a maximum period between each offence (except where that offence is murder, attempted murder, child molestation or something else equally serious) of five years, so that someone is not imprisoned for life for a isolated offence after a long period of law abiding behaviour.

It is only fair under these circumstances to offer rehabilitation as appropriate. Thirdly, where an offence is committed in the course of either self defence, or defence of others, then it should not count as a strike for the purposes of such a law.

For further information look at these links;
The Impact of Three Strikes Laws
Three Strikes Works in California
And here's an individual case
For those able to read legalese, here's the actual California Law .
The best resource naturally has to be Threestrikes.org , where else!

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What about Hard Labour?

The appeal to a long suffering public of getting some of the more arrogant offenders to do Hard Labour is understandable. What is most important is that prison inmates are kept constructively occupied, working at least as hard as the average law abiding citizen on the outside.

This way they can contribute to their upkeep, and also pay some compensation to the victim and/or their family. This will not only ameliorate the injustice of prisoners doing nothing while their victims slog all day to make ends meet, but may also better prepare those who do eventually re-enter society.

However there are a number of issues that need to be considered. For one thing, we will need to find something constructive for them to labour on that will not displace existing jobs - and there are not many rocks left that need breaking! We also need to define what is meant by hard labour, be it breaking rocks or doing something less physical. It would make sense to match the labour to both the offence and to the offender. There will be a few cases where an inmate who is undergoing rehabilitation and is trying to improve themselves can be given work of a more intellectual nature.

On the other hand, most will realistically be doing something that more closely matches most peoples perceptions of "hard labour" as they do not have the skill or intellect to do anything else. Perhaps if prison labour is to be used, it could be for Taskforce Green type work. Given that if we are to only imprison those that constitute a threat to society, these workgroups would need to be closely supervised so that prisoners don't escape!

Perhaps we could take a lead from the States where they have revived chain gangs to do roadside clean up work, which does put them out in the public eye, and perhaps will have some deterrent effect? Care would need to taken not to breach international laws on use of prison labour, while also avoiding meaningless "makework". However, strenuous but meaningless makework for a few of the more arrogant offenders may help deflate their excess self esteem.

Unfortunately, the only type of people unlikely to be deterred by hard labour or indeed anything else up to and including capital punishment are the very type that commit these offences. The rest of us have enough intelligence and foresight to know that violent crime is not a particularly viable life strategy. (Sorry, couldn't resist the temptation to take the mickey out of some politically correct jargon).

One justification for Hard Labour is not that it benefits the offender by improving their character (unlikely in any case), but that it benefits the victim, giving them at least a measure of satisfaction. Perhaps the victim should be given the power to use various sentencing options of which hard labour could be one, granting them back some of the power taken off them by the offender, particularly in cases of rape.

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Capital Punishment

This is a difficult and emotionally fraught subject. There are sound arguments on both sides of the capital punishment debate. Certainly, executing someone for a first offence of murder would be unjust, particularly if there were some extenuating circumstances. And we should be absolutely and utterly sure of someone's guilt before taking measures this drastic. Fortunately the possibilty of executing an innocent man are fairly remote these days, what with DNA tracking and other technologies that did not exist even 10 years ago, let alone in Arthur Alan Thomas's time.

The value of Capital Punishment as a deterrent is low, as many of the people who commit murder or rape are incapable of thinking through the consequences of their actions. They are impulsive, often of minimal intelligence, or psychiatrically disturbed, and may also be affected by drugs/and or alcohol. On the other hand, executing such offenders will save the cost of long term imprisonment, as such offenders will almost always have a long track record of similar offences.

The idea of state sanctioned killing is one that will not be palatable to a large section of the public, however, and may contravene some United Nations Human Rights Laws, so any move in this direction needs to be carefully thought out, attractive as the idea of publically hanging arrogant scum like Malcolm Rewa might seem.

Another factor that needs to be considered in the case of murder, is the situation where a first time offender, with no previous criminal activity at all, kills as the result of extreme provocation, or under unusual circumstances unlikely to be repeated. Executing or even long term imprisonment for such a case would not be productive, as the person is unlikely to offend again and the public does not need to be protected from them. These are exactly the type of situations that Brian Neeson's Degrees of Murder Bill would have addressed had it been made law here. French legislation addresses this issue with a "Crimes of Passion" provision.

juries are often more reluctant to convict with such a final and irreversible punishment.

Another factor that requires consideration is that juries are often more reluctant to convict with such a final and irreversible punishment. This can have the undesirable side effect of increasing the chances of killers going free. It is preferable to convict all offenders of this type and keep them locked up for life, than it is to kill some and release the rest.

In addition, it could be argued that for some offenders, a death sentence may actually be preferable to life imprisonment, Timothy McVeigh who committed the slaughter in Oklahoma being a case in point. Other more creative ways of dealing with this type of offender could be used that may actually be a more severe punishment than death...

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Prisons have four functions;
1) To protect the public
2) To punish
3) To deter
4) To rehabilitate
How well prisons perform the latter two functions is a matter of debate. Prison is probably not an ideal environment for rehabilitation. And given how our prisons are run currently, many inmates probably find life outside more punishing than it is inside. The most important function of prisons is the protection of those outside them, as stated earlier.

That said, we could usefully take a lead from overseas on how we run our prisons, remembering that their most important purpose is to isolate violent offenders from their victims and from the rest of society. Perhaps we don't want to be quite this harsh though!

Prisons may not necessarily work from the viewpoint of the criminal, but they do for the rest of society, provided that we use them intelligently. Until we come up with some magic solution the public has a right to protection from violent predators.

further brutalisation would be difficult

A common claim made about prisons is that they brutalise the inmates. This, in most cases, is utter rubbish. Most of them are already brutal, and further brutalisation would be difficult, particularly for the type of offenders that should be put in there. Looking at most of the gang rapists and murderers that have hit the headlines over the years, it is difficult to conceive how they could be made any more brutal than they already are.

If someone is genuinely going to be traumatised by the prison experience, then either they are a first/second offender and therfore a fit contender for rehabilitation or one would wonder how genuinely sensitive the person really is if they can commit a series of violent offences.

prison cartoon

Realistically, probably the way to run prisons is in such a way that they are not so harsh as to draw wide public sympathy to the inmates or trouble from international laws, but not such a soft option that offenders will see prison as a preferable option to the struggles of life out in the world. And we could start by putting an end to this kind of nonsense.

It makes sense that we need to run them efficiently so that they cost the public no more to run than is necessary, but on the other hand to provide opportunities for betterment for any inmates that wake up their ideas and wish to take advantage of their confinement to get qualifications etc that may later allow them to be productive members of society.

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