Sentencing and Parole Reform Bill

April 2009

Submission from the Restorative Justice Network Confronting ‘three strikes’ legislation

The Restorative Justice Network was founded in 1995 to promote better processes within the criminal justice system. Collectively, our committee has more than 230 years of involvement working with the criminal justice processes.

We have traditionally focused on the promotion of victim-offender reconciliation, FCGs and restorative justice conferences as providing better opportunities for justice to be achieved. In particular, we have been keen advocates for a better deal for victims of crime. Restorative justice processes offer most participants a better deal.

We have long been extremely critical of the current criminal justice processes which more and more in recent years have sought to make imprisonment the norm for any perceived ‘serious’ offending. All our research and experience indicates that this is counter-productive. All this does is harden often already dysfunctional and disadvantaged people into further anti-social habits. The dividend for the community in most cases is a guarantee of further offending. Check out any serious offending involving murder and mayhem in the past few years in this country and you will find prison graduates involved. Prisons are ‘universities of crime’. They always have been. They remain so.

We appreciate that there are huge vested interests involved in maintaining the current failed system. These include thousands of corrections officers, police officers, judges, court officials, criminal lawyers, a majority of politicians, certain business interests especially in the construction industry, and of course the corporate media, who have a pivotal role in the way crime is reported. A recent survey of the NZ Herald found that in a 20 year period from 1983 during which crime rates dropped in many categories, the content of ‘tragedy’ news, mainly crime, had increased from 25% to 34% (RNZ 19 April).That is one third of the paper! One can only imagine what impact, consciously or otherwise, such a daily deluge of ‘bad news’ stories has on the human psyche. In February 2009, the Christchurch district commander of the police, was moved to point out that perception of how bad crime was in his city far outweighed the reality. This is not the first time police leadership has expressed misgivings. Ex-Commissioner Rob Robinson often made the same point. Only a different approach to reporting will help change this.

It is our belief that the public perception leading to the dramatic legislation contained in this Bill far outweighs the reality of crime in this country. We accept that we have far too much crime. But the myths perpetuated by certain media, political parties and community groups that more imprisonment for longer is an answer is simplistic and based on little more than feelings of vengeance and the desire for more punishment.

This is not a new phenomenon. In the 18th century, hundreds of magistrates and judges all over England and Ireland thought that it was reasonable to transport thieves and other serious offenders for life to the colonies, and reasonable to execute people for up to 200 offences ranging from treason and murder to pick pocketing. As an evolving people, we have grown in our understanding of what was acceptable civic behavior and many penalties from that period were deemed to be inhumane. These included the rack, flogging, torture, the stocks and execution. We matured to a point where by the early 1990s, several wide ranging reports into the criminal justice system came to the conclusion that imprisonment was self-defeating except in the most exceptional cases and that a varied range of community-based sentences offered better hope for victims as well as offenders, and the community as a whole.

This proposed legislation is a step back into an immature past, where vengeance ruled and injustice was perpetuated by the very system that was supposed to provide the opposite. ‘Three strikes’ and imprisonment for life without parole proposals are a step back into the dark ages. They flow from an ideology of narrow reaction to the difficult problems crime poses. None of us want crime to go undetected. We do want offenders to be held accountable. But this type of legislation is like using a bulldozer to crush an acorn, leaving the surrounds badly damaged. We believe it flows more from the perception of crime, fuelled by the infatuation of the corporate media with crime and policing, than from reality.

Who decides what is criminal behaviour and what is not? In the last decades of the 20th century, the Child Poverty Action Group revealed New Zealand had the fastest growth in income and wealth inequality in the OECD. New Zealand is near the bottom of the rich nation’s index, for infant mortality, children’s health and safety, teenage pregnancy and immunization. In 2004 there were 175,000 children living in severe hardship and being left behind. This is a damming picture. Can we not say that this is a crime against such people? Who among the powerful and the wealthy takes responsibility for such crime?

Already our prisons are holding up to 20 percent who rightly should be in mental health care, not jail. They hold a huge number who are addicts and alcoholics, mentally challenged, unemployed or from dysfunctional families. They are holding a disproportionate number of poor people from lower blue collar economic backgrounds. A large proportion of prison inmates are illiterate or semi-illiterate. Prisons incarcerate a vastly disproportionate number of Maori and Polynesian. All for what? So they can be punished and taught a lesson not to re-offend? All the evidence is that such lessons don’t work if the social fabric doesn’t change

Our imprisonment rate is disproportionately high for such a small multi-cultural nation. To our shame, we rank second only to the US in the western world, and well ahead of Australia and European countries, some of whom have a third of our rate. Our rates have virtually doubled in the past 20 years, yet crime rates in many areas having decreased in that period. There is no evidence that we have anything like the systemic organized crime that characterises Chicago and New York or even Melbourne. So, why do we have such high numbers imprisoned and sentences getting longer? Do we imprison at such high rates because New Zealanders are innately worse than Australians, the English, the Irish, and Scandinavians? Or rather because we are a small country and perception of crime outweighs the reality? Why have we allowed a punitive culture, fuelled by the corporate media, to creep up and take over our primary information sources? Try finding a night of TV not dominated by crime, policing and ‘law and order’ stories. The media and television in particular have developed a love affair with crime and have sucked us all into it. It is to our mortal shame that we have allowed this to happen.

The biggest crime in the past few years has been the crash of the global economic system, resulting from often fraudulent investments and usurous interest rates. In plain language much of what happened was theft. The pain of people who have lost their jobs, their homes, their marriages, their security and been driven into poverty is enormous. The crash created millions of victims from ordinary decent families. Yet, even though this has involved immoral behavior of the worst kind against the common good of numerous communities, indeed whole nations, most of what was done was legal. Obvious as it was, the law simply didn’t cover it. Few will be held accountable for the pain and suffering they have caused. Many have been paid huge bonuses! Yet by any measure of fairness, it involved substantial criminal behavior by some of the most pampered citizens on the planet. There will be no jail time for them, no ‘strikes’ against their name.

The extension of sentences as outlined in this Bill does not extend into the economic field, nor cover the epidemic of fraud our country faces every year. That is perceived as being far too difficult an area. We make this point merely to show how discriminatory the law can be and how tilted our criminal justice system is against certain crimes and not others.

Conclusion

The explanatory note contained in the general policy statement at the beginning of this Bill states that ‘the policies are intended to enhance public confidence in the criminal justice system’. We believe the opposite is more likely. Who can trust a system that is so punitive that it offers little if any hope to an incarcerated person? Locking up grown adults in little rooms without ready access to facilities for years at a time defies belief in what is supposed to be a modern sophisticated age. Expecting them to emerge into a changed world and successfully adapt is clearly nonsense. And the statistics show it. Yet we keep extending this failed costly system. Unbelievable!

The problems crime causes are huge. But they have always been with us. We believe creative options are needed in coping and dealing with it. But they must flow from an accurate analysis, not hyped up perception. They must reflect common sense. They must enhance people’s lives, not further denigrate them. They must be affordable.

The provisions of this Bill do not meet any of these criteria and should be rejected.

Restorative Justice Network committee:

Rev Jim Consedine – former prison chaplain, Christchurch

Denny Anker – Restorative Justice facilitator, Christchurch

Moana Cole – barrister, Christchurch

Mary Kamo – prison chaplain, Christchurch

Cathy Harrison – former chair, Hebron Youth Trust, Christchurch

Suzanne McNabb – Women’s Affairs Officer, Association of University Women, Wellington

Helen Bowen – barrister, Auckland

James Boyack – barrister and solicitor, Auckland

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