Elias crossed constitutional line - Key

Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias made some valid points in a speech about prison numbers, but the speech crossed a constitutional line, Prime Minister John Key said today.

In her speech publicly released last week, Dame Sian raised the idea of amnesties for prisoners to ease the strain on prisons.

She suggested that a political and media focus on victims was having too great an influence.

Dame Sian said if attitudes in relation to bail and parole were not relaxed, then the focus would have to go on the length of prison sentences and this could result in either shorter sentences, changes to parole and bail laws or early release amnesty.

Justice Minister Simon Power rebuked her for the comments saying "the Government was elected to set sentencing policy, judges are appointed to apply it".

Mr Key agreed.

"There is a delicate line to tread here between the role and advocacy of the judiciary versus that of the minister and in that regard I don't think there is any question the chief justice strayed over that line," Mr Key said.

In terms of the growing prison population, he agreed with Dame Sian and Mr Power had been working on policy to get this down.

Work was being done on the underlying drivers of crime and how home detention could be used more successfully.

"In that regard she has a point and that's the point the Government has been following. But that is the role and responsibility of the minister of justice not the chief justice.

"A random amnesty that lets anybody out - we are not going to sign up for that," Mr Key said.

"(Also) I do not agree that victims have been put too much front and centre stage, actually I would argue the opposite."

Mr Key said he admired Dame Sian and said she had a fine legal mind.

The prison muster is set to break the previous record of 8457 behind bars, set in September 2007 - as of last Monday there were 8434 people held in prisons or police stations.

The Government has said turning modular or container cells into prisons and double bunking were being used to help manage the "serious capacity crisis" in the short term.

Extending existing prisons and building new prisons were longer term options.

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