Cuddling criminals hasn’t worked. New Zealand’s justice system needs to start putting victims first, which means ensuring appropriate sentences for offenders that will keep communities safe.

Labour has created a culture of lawlessness by:

  • Setting targets for reductions in prison numbers but not reductions in victimisations

  • Repealing ACT’s Three Strikes law which kept the worst violent criminals off the streets

  • Letting gang numbers increase at over double the rate of Police officers

  • Running a catch-and-release youth justice system with no consequences for many young offenders

One recurring theme throughout the justice system is that weak sentences are being handed down for grotesque crimes. How does this happen? Is there a problem with the judges?

Since October 2017, there’s been an 83 per cent increase in sexual offenders serving an electronically monitored sentence and a 133 per cent increase in gang members sentenced for violence offences serving an electronically monitored sentence. As at 30 June 2023, there were 917 people serving an electronically monitored sentence in the community for violent offending.

Since 2016, almost 9,000 people have been charged with an offence while subject to home detention. Offenders on home detention put New Zealanders’ safety at risk by committing over 1,500 offences every year.

The reality is that judges are following the law. Judges use the principles listed in section 8 of the Sentencing Act 2002 as a guide to making decisions about what sentences to give to offenders.

The principles set out in the Sentencing Act explain sentencing decisions. Section 8 contains ten points, and of those:

  • Four concern the offender

  • One concerns the victim

  • None concern public safety

The way to change impotent sentencing decisions is to change the underlying principles of sentencing.

The principles currently require judges, when sentencing offenders, to consider the background of the offender, including their “cultural background”. Criminals can have reports prepared on their “cultural background” and get reduced sentences if they’ve had a troubled upbringing. For example, a man who punched a pregnant woman unconscious was let out on home detention, because a cultural background report found he hadn’t been properly introduced to his whakapapa. ACT says no crime is justified because you’re alienated from your culture.

The principles also require judges to hand down the “least restrictive” sentence that is appropriate, which leads to shorter sentences (less than two years) being converted from imprisonment to home detention.

While the principles take account of these soft factors, they do not require judges to explicitly consider public safety. ACT says that is wrong. Judges shouldn’t be directed to give the “least restrictive” sentence that is appropriate, but a sentence that reflects the seriousness of the crime and that prioritises public safety.

ACT would make the following changes to the Sentencing Act’s principles (s8) to rebalance sentencing in the interests of the victim and the community:

  • ACT would clarify that judges are to impose the least restrictive outcome that does not impose a disproportionate risk to the community.

  • ACT would ensure that judges not only consider the historical impacts of the offending on the victim, but also consider any present risks the sentence may impose on the victim.

  • ACT has previously committed to abolishing cultural reports, we would also abolish the consideration of cultural background as a principle of sentencing.

ACT also would amend the relevant community-based and home detention sections of the Sentencing Act (s15, s15A), to ensure such sentences are only imposed if doing so does not disproportionately increase risks to the public, says ACT’s Justice spokesperson Nicole McKee.

ACT would also improve the information available to judges on the risks of re-offending.

A lot of information about the risks of reoffending can be gleaned from algorithmic risk assessments. Modern risk assessment models process large amounts of data about individuals’ criminal history and characteristics in order to identify patterns and relationships, forming the basis of probabilistic predictions about future convictions and sentencing.

The Department of Corrections has been managing a risk prediction tool since 2001 known as ‘RoC*RoI’ to inform decisions around rehabilitative services and parole decisions. ACT would require judges to include in sentencing the offender’s RoC*RoI score and how it has influenced the judge’s sentencing decision (including any conditions put on the sentence). ACT would also commit to ensuring the RoC*RoI tool is fit for sentencing purposes. Ultimately, however, judges would still maintain discretion in sentencing.

It’s 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.