Doubts on need for indefinite detention

A University of Otago-led group of academics and practitioners has questioned the need for a Bill which would allow very high risk offenders who have served their full prison sentence to be kept in detention indefinitely.

The group, led by Associate Prof Colin Gavaghan, from the law faculty and Bioethics Centre director Prof John McMillan, says the Bill is a populist gesture that might make people feel better, but is unlikely to make them any safer.

In fact, it could make it more difficult to rehabilitate other dangerous offenders released into the community.

The group, which was funded by the New Zealand Law Foundation, assembled experts in law, ethics, psychology and psychiatry to assess the proposed Public Safety (Public Protection Orders) Bill.

In its submission to the justice and electoral committee, presented at Parliament yesterday by Profs McMillan and Gavaghan, together with clinical psychologist Dr Armon Tamatea, of Waikato University, the group identified concerns with the Bill in principle and in practice.

Prof Gavaghan said the principal concerns were that the Bill breached domestic and international human rights obligations by imposing retrospective penalties and arbitrary detention.

He said the group was not convinced the sorts of arrangements already in place, particularly extended supervision orders (ESOs), perhaps ''beefed up'' a little in terms of duration (at present limited to 10 years) and made wider (limited at moment to sex offenders), could not be used to adequately manage the population being talked about.

''We've been offered no evidence whatsoever, not been given a single case study where [ESOs] have failed to do the job.

''The last resort option, really, is to lock people up in a prison forever, based on what we think they might do in the future.

''But the Government seems to be jumping to that first, and we think that is premature. We think that's jumping to the extreme, without any evidence it's necessary.''

Practically, evidence from similar programmes in Australia was that it was making no difference to offending rates and focusing on a very few high-profile offenders could take away resources from other programmes.

''Also, it might create a greater public risk by jeopardising the rehabilitation prospects of the bigger prison population who won't be caught up in this Bill, and will be released into society, potentially to offend again.''

The group had not been convinced a case had been made for violating rights, Prof Gavaghan said.

''If we were to be convinced there was literally no other way to protect people, that would be different, but we haven't.''

The group recommended the committee gather more evidence on what was working and what was not, particularly analysing the ESO regime and whether extending it would work, before thinking about the extreme option of locking people up and throwing away the key.

''It would have to be a last resort, to be justified.''

- debbie.porteous@odt.co.nz