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The price of justice must not be short-changed

10 March 2006

Marc My Words: The price of justice must not be short-changed by cut-price ideas

Political comment By Marc Alexander

It is an oft assumed dictum that criminals should not be able to look to the government to be a co-conspirator to their crimes. But when a government writes legislation, then undermines its objectives through a lack of enforcement or penalty, that is precisely the effect. The Justice Minister, aided and abetted by the Corrections Minister under the guise of being "progressive" are the Laurel and Hardy act of the current criminal justice debate. In reality it's about mismanaging taxpayer resources and lowering the cost of implementing whatever's left of the rule of law.

Criminals are no more and no less than what the law declares them to be. If no penalty is exacted for an offence, or it is diminished in comparison to its magnitude, then respect for the rules governing society will evaporate. The present discussions regarding the curtailment of imprisonment simply to lower the prison muster, to save money, will be at the expense not only of the public's respect for law but justice anticipated and provided to the victim's of crime. Law will no longer be the means by which to establish order.

The assurance of justice will increasingly become a figment of a receding aspiration. It will be brought about by those who have forgotten to nourish the very heart of the criminal justice system: those who suffer at the hands of criminals - the victims

I was at a parole hearing yesterday, along with a few others, to help support a family whose daughter had been brutally murdered some years ago. The criminal has a long record of offences including rape, has shown no signs of remorse, has refused any rehabilitation program offered (not that he would to go on them for any reason other than early release anyway), and will in all probability be a continuing risk to the public if ever let out. And yet there we were at his fourth parole hearing. Why?

I admit to being biased in my opinions. I have an empathy with victims that I will never have with criminals. So then, maybe I do miss part of the bigger picture. But for me the difference is this: I see the life-long suffering of families such as at yesterday's parole hearing. They did not lose a daughter to accident, neglect, or even a moment of someone else's irresponsibility. They lost the life of their child (and the future they expected to share in their child's life) because of a malicious and premeditated choice by a criminal to commit an act of unforgivable violence who didn't care one jot for the life and rights of another. The murderer volunteered for his part, the young girl did not.

So excuse me if I don't get teary-eyed about the loss of this murderers liberty. He was given 'life' but you can bet the only people serving it will be the family. Sometimes the best thing we can do to alleviate a family's grief and avoid painful parole hearings for crmes such as this is to have a sentence of "never to be released". If we value truth at all then why not truth in sentencing?

Some people will never be rehabilitated. We should stop trying and redirect our resources to those who can be - in particular families most at risk of breeding a new generation of criminals. There are some excellent programs around: those with a proven track record of success. They tend to be non-government, staffed by people who are passionate about what they do, and can do it on a shoe-string. By contrast many government programs are repositories for high ideals and little effect. Why can't a minister for once admit that a program has failed, that funding will cease or be redirected to a more hopeful program? Instead we see more tax-money getting sucked into a bad idea because 'we can't be seen to fail'! And if it is, then let's dolly up the stats to make it look better.

What confidence in the system can we have when, for example, Lillybing's killer (Rachealle Namana) says proudly that prison was not a punishment and that she cannot rule out a return to criminal offending! What's wrong with prison being a place that people would do anything to avoid returning to?

We are supposed to trust the government and its various agencies, but when Statistics NZ employs a man who slit the throat of his partner and two children just 13 years ago, and sends him to collect census forms from unsuspecting peoples homes - we really have lost the plot! And no, it doesn't help to find that he was found not guilty by reason of insanity!

And what of the out-and-out injustice with regard to Dannevirke man (Vince Jensen) who was found guilty of beating a 20-year-old so badly as to leave him with six metal plates in his head, loss of balance and slurred speech a full eighteen months later, and yet is still free to enjoy his liberty while awaiting sentencing? He is enjoying a quality of life he robbed from his victim! Where's justice?

This Labour government seems willing to throw taxpayer's money at every ideological cause it can come up with. Unfortunately the safety and security of our law-abiding isn't one of them. Victims are screwed in New Zealand: once by the criminal, then again by the system. We have an ethical vacuum on the Treasury benches littered by individuals who do not see punishment as a fitting consequence of crime. They would rather treat criminals as sick or afflicted; individuals let down by society; or, at the very least, victims of circumstance. The 'cure' they advocate is not accountability for an exercise of free will but rather, 'treatment' in the same way an illness might be ministered to.

The only alternative is to imagine that this government is so cynical that it is pursuing a policy of returning criminals back into the community simply to save money. The end result of which is to further erode the concept of personal responsibility. When National is returned to government at the next election they will inherit a criminal justice mess: a rising tide of violent crime aided by a lack of legal consequence; a need to rebuild the rationale and function of a debilitated prison system; and sadly, more victims.

Our justice system does not reside with our judges - they are only its functionaries, its mouthpiece. Justice is far too important to leave solely in the hands of judges. The point - perhaps clumsily expressed - is that our laws, courts, and criminal justice system cannot be the singular preserve of ideologues and bean counters far removed from its consequences but must reflect the commonsense of the people who are subject to its effects.

Its time politicians, bureaucrats, and judges started to listen to their boss: the people who pay their salaries - us.


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