Law changes a risk and challenge

Justice Minister Andrew Little is preparing to make major changes within New Zealand's criminal justice system, indicating the ``three strikes'' law is set to be overturned.

Mr Little plans to take a proposal to Cabinet to have the law repealed, something welcomed by many lawyers and academics.

The law was passed in 2010 under the previous National-led government, with the support of Act New Zealand.

It set up a three-stage system of increasing consequences for repeat serious violent offenders.

As it stands, on a third strike, the sentence must be the maximum possible unless the court considers it would be manifestly unjust - which some judges have interpreted to mean just that.

Mr Little has said the law has not successfully reduced serious crime and has not acted as an efficient deterrent.

Mr Little said last year Labour intended to repeal the law, which was only ever a gimmick.

The minister also wants to reduce the prison population, something enraging supporters of harsher penalties for repeat offenders. The changes may include less-stringent bail provisions, alarming those who have experienced further violence from offenders out on bail.

The rapid rise in prison numbers follows 30 years of public policy-making and the public calling for tougher sentences, which Mr Little believes has criminalised behaviour.

One of the major challenges is to change public attitudes, saying what has been happening for 30 years in criminal justice reform is not working. Violent offending is increasing.

PSA members working in prisons want more detail released of the Government's plans to cut the number of New Zealanders in jail, particularly concerning prison beds and Community Corrections.

Prisons are so overcrowded many inmates are housed in substandard accommodation. The PSA says its members cannot carry out the sorely-needed rehabilitation work if inmates are going to turn their lives around and stay out of jail.

New Zealand has one of the highest prison populations per head of capita in the world, not something to be proud of.

The changes are being introduced at a time when the prison population remains well above 10,000 and is forecast to rise. Pop-up prisons are being established to cope in the near-term as the mega-prison at Waikeria is taken off the table.

Mr Little is indicating the changes he is proposing are part of a modest package of measures, and wholesale reform will not happen until after public debate.

Measures he is proposing include restoring the former Sentencing Council to provide consistency in sentencing across the country. The council will include lay people, as well as judges, so the guidelines developed for judges also reflect community expectations.

There is inconsistency among decisions handed out by judges and any measures to improve consistency will be welcomed.

The electronic bail system and more police, as signalled by the Government, are being touted as effective responses if something goes wrong.

Fortunately, Mr Little is proving to be one of the more successful ministers in the Labour-led Government and he will not be bowed by the criticism already coming his way from many angles.

However, the minister needs to allay public concerns when it comes to easing bail laws and sentencing options. Law and order always features highly on any poll of public concerns, despite being part of a society based on fairness and equality.

No-one wants sexual offenders and murderers running around their suburbs and that is the issue Mr Little will have to address. It will only take one serious crime by someone on home detention or on bail for his opponents to start howling at the moon.

Denials the Government is going soft on crime will sound empty at that time.



Concern about violent offenders at large is not moral panic. Neither would Mr Little be happy with a system of civilian armed self defence.

The judiciary is reflexive over minor crime. It makes no sense to jail posties for hoarding undelivered mail, or people missing attendance at CD.

"The law can not in any way justify." "He who is justified by the law has fallen from grace." The law is meant to be for directing people away from harmful actions before they even consider doing them.






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