5 Oct 2020

A new kind of justice? Parties' positions on law and order

11:09 am on 5 October 2020

Political parties increasingly agree that new approaches in the justice system - on prevention, prisons, deterrence and drugs - is needed, but exactly how it should change is up for debate.

A 3D render of a closeup of view of a jail cells iron bars with an open door casting shadows on the prison floor with copy space

Photo: 123RF

Labour promised justice reform in 2017 to help break the cycle of offending and tackle the root causes of crime. It set a target of 30 percent reduction over 15 years, promising to focus on crime prevention and rehabilitation, while boosting frontline police numbers.

Prison numbers are down by just over 11 percent over the term, but 45 percent of those released in 2017/2018 were reconvicted within 12 months.

In August 2018 the government held a Justice Summit that delved into all aspects of the system - a two-day talk fest seeking ideas and a mandate for reform.

During the summit, Justice Minister Andrew Little faced backlash from victims who felt sidelined and revictimised and he quickly announced there would be a separate victims meeting.

A raft of reports containing sweeping recommendations resulted from the Summit, but many victims still feel completely let down by the system.

Whose justice?

Stacey and Greg Woollaston's two-year-old son was killed a year ago. The offender - who was 17 - was given 100 hours community service.

It had been the end of term and they were on a cycle/walking track, making the most of daylight saving.

"He was two, nearly three at the time of the accident and it was Friday, the last week of school... Jonathan absolutely loves biking and going on a bike and being on his bike with Greg," Stacey says.

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(Stock image) Photo: 123rf.com

It was getting dark and they were heading home when a speeding motorbike appeared out of nowhere and drove straight into Greg and Jonathan.

Stacey says police told them from the outset they would not find any justice, and the focus of the court and their assigned social worker, was on not ruining the rest of his life.

"He said 'I'm not here for you, I'm here for the offender and what's in the best interests of the offender. It's in his best interest that he doesn't get penalised' ... we're like 'are you serious? He's just killed our son and you think that's not worth anything?'"

Greg says their victim impact statements were heavily censored and they felt completely shut out of the court process.

"We're not even involved in the case, we're just sitting at the back and sort of spectators."

However, criminal defence lawyer Elizabeth Hall says most of the time the line between offender and victim is almost non-existent.

"I can't think of a single one of the clients that I have represented that also doesn't have a horrendous background and story of how they've got there."

Elizabeth Hall, the lawyer representing the Alderson family.

Criminal lawyer Elizabeth Hall. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

'It's about a better understanding'

Labour's justice spokesperson Andrew Little says undoing decades of the damage done by increasingly harsh and numerous penalties takes time.

"The whole rhetoric of 'soft on crime' is just so out of date," he says.

"There's a greater awareness that actually just doing more of that isn't fixing the problem but on the other hand making that change has got to be done at a pace that would take people with us.

Andrew Little speaks to media at parliament 30 April 2019

Labour justice spokesperson Andrew Little. Photo: RNZ / Ana Tovey

However, he says his party's views have evolved from the feedback over the past three years and they want to institutionalise a stronger voice for victims.

"I think it's about a better understanding of what it is to make sure that for victims - who are drawn into the criminal justice system not because of anything they've done or chosen to do but because of what's happened to them - that their place has got to be better respected in the system."

Improving things for victims is an area where political parties find common ground. The National Party's justice spokesperson Simon Bridges says the party would put victims at the heart of the justice system.

"That's more than just rhetoric, I think that's an ethos we would take," he says.

"You see that for example in things like a victim notification register, but it is opt in and we say that's not good enough. Actually if we're victim-centric it should be opt-out."

National leader Simon Bridges speaks to media during a press conference at Parliament on April 09, 2020 in Wellington, New Zealand.

National Party's justice spokesperson Simon Bridges. Photo: Pool / Getty Images

New Zealand First says it would prioritise the principles of the Sentencing Act to focus on the needs of the victim, then the community - and lastly the offender.

It takes a more hardline approach on offenders, calling for harsher penalties for fleeing drivers, mandatory minimum sentences for serious violent and sexual offences, and harsher penalties for murder, shoplifting, littering,

"It's been a sector significantly underinvested in, and justice delayed is justice denied. It's been a fundamental principle down through the centuries," leader Winston Peters says.

Winston Peters at an election campaign event in Taupō, 17 Sept 2020

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters. Photo: RNZ / Simon Rogers

Deterrence and injustice

ACT leader David Seymour is pitching to add burglary to the three strikes saying that it isn't a property crime - it's an invasion.

"Generally it's a small group of professional burglars who get away with a large number of them so if you do get one it's worth putting them away for a long time. Just bear in mind, someone that's convicted of three has probably done a lot more than that."

His party would also reward prisoners who complete literacy programmes and driver licensing tests - and prisoners who offer to teach the programmes - with reduced sentences, and scrap red tape that stops ordinary New Zealanders from volunteering in prison education and rehabilitation programmes.

ACT leader David Seymour, on the Election 2020 campaign trail.

ACT leader David Seymour Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

"There's no point trying to punish people with a sledgehammer," Seymour says.

That sentiment likely resonates with Hall who, as a lawyer, has seen the vicious cycle punishment can lead to. She believes the idea that deterrence works is misplaced, and three strikes simply does not work.

She says New Zealand is only just putting the halt on following the US down the mass incarceration route - and whoever makes up the next government needs ensure the conversation about finding a better way continues.

"Burglary for example covers and enormous range of criminal wrongdoing. So it's really not just irresponsible but inappropriate to tell judges 'look, you have to deal with it in a certain way'. It will lead to injustice."

Greens justice spokesperson Golriz Ghahraman also says imprisonment has failed as a system and it is time to look at something new.

The party wants to increase restorative justice, calling for a halt on building new prisons and bringing in Tikanga Māori approaches to justice.

"We want for the first time for government to acknowledge that imprisonment has really failed ... crime has only gone up as imprisonment rates have gone up. We have now an overpopulated American style prison system that isn't serving anyone and in particular targets Māori," Ghahraman says.

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Greens justice spokesperson Golriz Ghahraman. Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

"If we're looking at a prison model then it does have to be at the point of focusing on rehabilitation rather than what we know has failed, which is deterrence.

"We have to look at other options at that sentencing stage as well that are community based and we know in other jurisdictions have actually brought down crime rates far more than imprisonment itself.

Drugs, gangs

The major parties also seem to agree on the idea that addiction should be treated as a health problem, not a criminal one.

Drug Counsellor Andrew Hopgood knows first hand the damage addiction causes. Growing up feeling he didn't belong, his need for acceptance saw him fall into drugs, a bikie gang ... and a criminal cycle.

"When they say pot's a gateway to drugs, I believe people are a gateway to drugs, trauma's a gateway to drugs. If cannabis was legal I wouldn't have met a speed dealer at 15 ... and each time I was punished and I was put in a holding cell and nothing was done.

"They'd give me a brand new criminal record and then they let me out and they go 'go get a job and go be accepted in society' but they don't tell me how."

Hopgood says while there has been some change in the past three years - it's still far too slow.

"What I don't like is all this talk about what needs to happen. We have huis about huis. You know, we're always talking about what we can do or what we should do or what we could do, but nothing gets done."

Little says the government has made key changes focused on early intervention.

"We've committed more resources to therapeutic courts like the alcohol and drug court, we've a long-term plan to add more courts around the country ... also in terms of other specialist courts, Matariki courts, rangatahi courts."

Bridges says health was always in National's mix, but it has really been brought to the fore with the new leadership.

"I do think having Dr Shane Reti, he's brought a tonal shift. In one sense I'm there on the tough stuff, but Dr Reti is also going to be very clear about the other side of it," Bridges says.

"Alongside that tough stuff it's crucially important to be rehabilitating and reintegrating."

Bridges firmly believes however, that what is needed is a strong fist as well as a kind hand. When he was leading the party, it looked like National was sticking to its tried and tested rhetoric, with a focus on clamping down on gangs."

Some of that approach has remained under leader Judith Collins, who says National would give the police greater powers to search the homes and cars of gang members for guns, introduce tougher sentences for gang-related crime and ban all gang insignia in public places.

National Party leader Judith Collins and justice spokesperson Simon Bridges, left, announcing the party's law and order policy on Tuesday 11 August.

National Party leader Judith Collins and justice spokesperson Simon Bridges, left, announcing the party's law and order policy in August. Photo: RNZ / Simon Rogers

Mongrel Mob member Dennis Makalio dismisses this as a tired trope National rolls out each election. He says there should be prevention education in schools and meth - not the gangs - is the enemy.

"People joining gangs because that's the only love there. That's the only people they trust. But you know, I'm sick of them saying 'they've joined a gang'. It's not. It's this big whānau."

"You'll never stop gangs. How can you stomp out - not gangs, but people of the land? They own this land."

Ghahraman says waging war on gangs is just dog-whistle politics, with racist undertones. She says it has never done anything to help victims, or bring down crime rates.

"That's something that they've said before and it's failed ... it's understandable that people are afraid of crime but for us to stir that up and then give them remedies that we know won't work is just callous."

Dennis Makalio, for use with Russell Browns drug feature

Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

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