10 Aug 2023

ACT justice policy targets judges' sentencing principles

12:17 pm on 10 August 2023
ACT party leader David Seymour

ACT leader David Seymour Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

The ACT party is promising to make changes to judges' sentencing principles, including removing all consideration of a convict's cultural background, if elected.

Announcing the policy on Thursday morning, ACT leader David Seymour said weak sentences were being handed out for grotesque crimes, but "the reality is that judges are following the law" and were using section 8 of the Sentencing Act 2002 as a guide.

He said ACT would change the law to help safeguard communities.

"Section 8 contains 10 points, and of those, four concern the offender, one concerns the victim, and none concern public safety. The way to change seemingly inexplicable sentencing decisions is to change the underlying principles of sentencing."

Changes would include:

  • Clarifying the law so sentencing must also consider "disproportionate risk to the community" (alongside the current "least restrictive outcome that is appropriate")
  • Ensure judges consider risk to the victim (as well as historical impacts of the offending on the victim)
  • Abolish cultural background as a principle in sentencing, alongside ending cultural reports

Seymour said the number of sexual offenders serving sentences under electronic monitoring had increased 83 percent since October 2017, while the increase for violent offending gang members under monitoring was up 133 percent.

The party's Justice spokesperson Nicole McKee said it was time to send a message to New Zealand.

"That crime will be punished, that criminals can't get away with light sentences after committing senseless violent acts, and that victims are at the heart of the justice system."

During the sentencing process, judges arrive at a 'starting point' for the sentence, and then add on time or take time off for various aggravating or mitigating factors.

Judges may consider the offender's background, which is often informed by a cultural report. ACT has proposed abolishing these reports, as well as any consideration of someone's cultural background as a principle in sentencing.

"ACT says no crime is justified because you're alienated from your culture," Seymour said.

While sentencing principles take into account the effect of the offending on the victim, Seymour said there were no provisions to consider the risk the sentence itself may impose on the victim.

Judges would also be required to include in sentencing an offender's RoC*Rol score (an algorithm based on the offender's risk of re-conviction multiplied by the offender's risk of imprisonment), and how it influenced their decision. RoC*Rol, a tool used by the Department of Corrections, has been in place since 2001 but ACT said there was not a lot of transparency around how widely it was used in sentencing.

Seymour said ultimately, judges would still maintain discretion in sentencing, but ACT's policy would ensure they placed greater consideration on the risks to the community when sentencing, and were more transparent with the public.

Potential coalition partner National has already signalled it would impose a 40 percent limit by which a judge could reduce a sentence, and cancel taxpayer funding for cultural reports.

Its policy, announced in June, aimed to crack down on what National said were substantially reduced sentences, which failed to adequately denounce the severity of a crime of the harm caused to the victim.

At the time, it was described as an "egregious overreach" on the judiciary by Labour.

Speaking to reporters in New Plymouth on Wednesday, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said it was important to maintain the separation between Parliament and the judiciary - but setting policy was part of politicians' role.

"We haven't seen political interference in the court system in the way that is more commonplace in other countries and I think that's something we should continue to protect," he said. "Our job as Parliamentarians and as leaders of the country is to ultimately review policy and policy settings, it is not to criticise individual judges or judges' decisions."

Indeed, the government is in the process of reviewing home detention policy settings in the wake of the recent shooting in central Auckland.

"I think recent events have highlighted the fact that we do need to look closely at whether home detention is working as intended. There are still reviews under way as a result of the shooting in Auckand and we've said that we'll look at the findings of those reviews very closely," Hipkins said.

Chris Hipkins in New Plymouth

Chris Hipkins during his visit to New Plymouth on Thursday. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

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