12 Nov 2014

Smith case spurs call for tighter checks

1:41 pm on 12 November 2014

The president of the Criminal Bar Association wants more extensive checking of names when people are first arrested. Convicted killer Phillip Smith obtained a passport under his birth name.

Convicted murderer and sex offender Phillip Smith fled New Zealand last week after being issued a passport under his birth name, Phillip Traynor.

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In an exclusive statement to Radio New Zealand, Smith said he had a "high degree of confidence" he could leave the country after carrying out background checks on his legal name and finding that there was no link to his criminal record. He said he left New Zealand to escape the "vigilante justice system" and had no help in escaping.

CCTV footage of  Phillip Smith as he passed through Auckland Airport.

CCTV footage of Phillip Smith as he passed through Auckland Airport. Photo: NZ Police

It appears he began using his stepfather's surname, Smith, but never legally changed it.

Criminal Bar Association president Tony Bouchier said police need to be more thorough when first checking criminal's names.

"There's got to be a far more robust process gone through when police are entering people's names into their systems and starting somebody off with a criminal record."

Smith had been on 72-hour release from Spring Hill prison in Waikato when he left the country, flying first to Chile, then on to Brazil.

Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga

Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

Corrections Minister Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga told Morning Report he did not accept Smith's claim of a vigilante justice system.

"This man is a convicted murderer and fraudster. He's broken the law and he needs to return home to face the charges.

"Him crying foul over the justice system - lot of people may not like how the justice system operates but it doesn't mean you break the law and abscond overseas."

He said the name an inmate comes under in the Corrections system is that recorded by police when they make an arrest and process a conviction.

The minister had requested an urgent review of what happened "so we can get the facts on the table so we can make some decisions as to how we can improve how we have temporary releases done out in the community."

Mr Lotu-Iiga said the review would answer whether, as a matter of course, high-risk offenders were given temporary release without an electronic monitoring.

"We've started trialling GPS, and my understanding is about 70 people are monitored using this GPS system ... those trials have been successful ...we've signed a contract to extend their use.

"Clearly this is an area that I believe ... where we'll have to use more of this type of technology in order to monitor high-risk offenders."

He told the programme he did not know whether Smith had access to a phone and the internet while operating a mail order business from prison.

"That's why I've ordered a review - I don't know that and we've got to find out what access he had to the internet, we need to find out what is conduct was."

He would also be looking further into claims Smith had had a hair transplant paid for by the taxpayer.

Mr Lotu-Iiga said he had confidence in Corrections chief executive Ray Smith.

"I've got confidence Corrections is doing a great job out there, protecting New Zealanders. There are 4700 temporary releases in any given year."

Suspension 'raw deal'

As a result of Smith's escape, Corrections have suspended temporary releases of prisoners for at least two weeks a move prison reform advocates describe as a raw eal for inmates.

The Department of Corrections announced yesterday that short-term releases will be allowed only in exceptional circumstances over the next fortnight and will require approval by one of their four regional commissioners.

The exception will be for prisoners involved in Release to Work and those released to supervised programmes.

For prisoners who have special circumstances such as a family bereavement or tangi, escorted temporary removal is still available as an option.

Most prisoners nearing completition of their sentence get short release stints to prepare them for reintegration into society.

Prison Reform Society spokesperson Peter Williams, QC, said Smith was an exceptional case, and other inmates working towards getting parole should not be punished for one man's behaviour.

"I think its wrong that innocent people should be punished for something they haven't done.

"Obviously some of these inmates have been waiting a long time for their release and its wrong logic to punsih them for something they are completely innocent of," he said.

The group Rethinking Crime and Punishment says it makes sense for Corrections to review its processes and look at where it could tighten policies.

But spokesperson Kim Workman is worried it could spell radical changes to the temporary release system.

"The thing that would concern us is that this doesn't in the long term impede the temporary release system.

"Because hundreds if not thousands of releases have been granted over recent years without any public concern and the system has worked well."

Mr Peter Williams agrees, saying says there appears to be alot of hysteria over Smith's escape - a prisoner incarcerated for nearly 20 years and nearing the end of his sentence.

"He's now right out of the jurisdiction and not costing the taxpayer anything and we shouldn't get too emotional about it.

"Parole is a very important part of our justice system and its important that young people that serve long sentences do get some short periods of relative freedom where they can adjust to the outside world," he said.

However the Howard League for penal reform says suspending temporary release for prisoners nearing the end of their sentences is the right thing to do.

Spokesperson Madeleine Rose said it was its a reasonable reaction from Corrections to Smith's escape during sponsored prison leave.

"Especially if it is only two weeks, if it went on longer it would be unfair on all the other prisoners that would never do what Smith did," she said.