I am – and I am sure many New Zealand readers are too – becoming aware of a growing frustration with the New Zealand court system and the sentences it hands down. It is something that has been growing in the last few years despite having a centre right Government that one thought might have hardened up on criminals. It is something growing despite an overwhelming referendum result in 1999 demanding tighter penalties.
Barely a month seems to go by without some new wrong happening. It might be a discharge without conviction for someone who admitted a crime. It might be another car chase gone wrong because the penalty for fleeing the cops is not high enough to make people think twice.
Over a period of years I have noticed something consistent with each complaint: the sentence handed down is too weak to do its job. The victim is left feeling like their rights and well being are less important to the judicial system than those of the perpetrator.
In the last two years several notable cases have come to light which highlight these concerns:
- A man with 47 child pornography charges is discharged without conviction
- A man with 12 drunk driving charges and 4 deaths to his name is not jailed
- Police chase ends in death – threat of instant jail for a short period would deter many
- A judge discharges without conviction a man despite him assaulting his partner, daughter and a man he believed his partner was romantically involved with
In trying to address how to fix these problems one has to keep an open mind about the potential causes. It is possible that the Sentencing Act has been so badly undermined that the Act no longer works. If that is the case then the Act needs to be overhauled or completely replaced. Certainly many sentences prescribed under the Act do not seem to be fit for purpose in a 21st Century society.
I personally think the range of sentences available needs to be overhauled. But I am aware that if that happens, so must the ability and willingness of the judges to hand them down. And here is where the strongest evidence of a major problem lies. More on that later.
Another possibility is that the training of judges has become too limp. I have no idea what is involved in the training of a judge in terms dispensing sentences, but there must surely be guidelines as to how to treat various types of sentencing scenarios, e.g for someone who committed aggravated robbery causing injury.
Whatever the case, I get the distinct feeling that much of the crime being committed is simply happening because the sentencing done by judges, irrespective of the actual regime they work under, amounts to wet bus tickets. The guilty person or people simply laugh it off, do their sentence and go on with the criminal activity as if no charges were ever brought against their name. This was backed by evidence in 2016 that many burglars caught do not get jail time and not one has been sentenced to the maximum 10 years or 14 years for aggravated burglary.
Minister of Justice Andrew Little has a difficult task ahead of him. His promise to overhaul how justice is dealt in New Zealand is laudable, especially if it reduces our incarceration rates. However this would need to address the widely held views that New Zealand judges are simply too lenient and limp wristed. Mr Little will need to work with both those who deal with prisoners and those who deal with victims in equal measure.