There is no doubt many New Zealanders will take comfort in
the passing into law last week of the Sentencing and Parole
Reform Bill. And if indeed the controversial Act New Zealand
three strikes legislation enjoys such a popular mandate, that
Crime, especially violent crime, is a slur on society, a
source of primal fear and unease and, periodically, the cause
of crippling grief, loss and financial hardship for innocent
individuals and families.
As they have grappled with the complexities of crime and
punishment, politicians have always understood its potency as
a lightning rod.
National campaigned in 2008 on getting tougher on crime, and
Act NZ, more specifically, put forward this law as part of
its confidence and supply requirements.
Many politicians also know, having sat through select
committees, listened to expert submissions and sifted through
mountains of evidence, that the innate urge for punishment
and retribution, often expressed in the popular call for
harsher penalties and longer sentences, carries with it
That is to say, while all agree it is right and proper to be
tough on violent crime, that there is a retributive element
to any punishment, that there are some recidivist criminals
who will never respond to attempts at rehabilitation, the
problem is not quite as simple as this law might seem to
Its passage into legislation raises legitimate and
fundamental questions: Is it good law? Will it make a
The three strikes law will see first-time offenders sentenced
and eligible for parole under the standard rules; at a second
conviction, sentencing would observe the normal criteria, but
with the jail term served without parole unless such a
sentence were manifestly unjust.
A third conviction would automatically invoke the maximum
sentence with no possibility of parole, again unless it was
The 40 offences in the schedule include serious violence,
rape and other sexual offending, manslaughter and murder. The
law does have a certain common sense appeal. How many chances
does a violent criminal, wreaking havoc and distress on
society and its citizens, warrant?
But in as much as it will sentence repeat offenders almost by
rote, without distinction as to the particularities of their
crimes, the circumstances under which they were committed, or
the psychopathology of the individual offender, in many cases
it will in fact deny the application of common sense - that
which judges, with due regard for the law, are employed to
deliver on behalf of the people.