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Home Invasion Laws Polarise Opinions

Papers released under the Official Information Act on the Government's plans to increase sentences for 'home invasion' crimes are a fascinating insight into the tensions between a conservative Cabinet and their more liberal officials.

The Crimes (Home Invasion) Amendment Bill was drafted after a series of high profile crimes dominated the headlines and the media imported an American name for what was an old crime.

The Bill is due back from select committee shortly, as originally drafted the maximum sentence for cases where offenders have intentionally attacked people in their homes will increase from the current maximum penalties of 5, 7 or 10 years, by an additional 3 years.

For offences that currently have maximum penalties of 14 or 20 years, an additional 5 years is added to the maximum. For example the new maximum penalty for home-invasion-aggravated-robbery is 19 years, rather than 14, and for home-invasion-sexual-violation, 25 years instead of 20.

The new law as drafted would allow judges at the time of sentencing to decide whether the new penalties should apply to the cases they have heard.

Reading between the lines of the papers released it is clear that Ministers saw a political opportunity to position themselves as 'defenders of the hearth', while cracking down on who they considered the most serious and vicious of criminals.

Justice officials were clearly less than enthused at the prospect and a series of papers show how they were forced to move from their 'no need' position to "well if you must, try this".

Options put forward ranged from do nothing to creating a whole new crime through to sentencing guidelines, before officials and Ministers 'agreed' on a two tier penalty system.

Officials were clearly worried about tinkering with New Zealand's relatively clean and simple system of criminal law, which give judges a great deal of discretion in handing out wide ranging punishment depending on circumstances.

In New Zealand there is a great deal of opportunity for what is known as judicial activism and officials believed that judges were already beginning to reflect the abhorrence that the general public felt for vicious attacks on people in their homes.

Officials feared anomalies would be created by defining a crime to be more serious simply because of the place it happened in. Ministers weren't swayed and decided that people did consider 'home invasion' more seriously and they would let judges sort out any problems that arose.

It is this area of anomalies that Labour's Justice spokesman, Phil Goff zeroed in on in select committee hearings and again since.

In the Parliament wire, Mr Goff says the Bill contains major flaws and needs substantial redrafting before Parliament should consider passing it into law.

"Someone who attacks you on your doorstep rather than inside your home is not covered. The gang member who shot Christopher Crean through his front door in New Plymouth would not have been classified as a home invader.

"However, if you are foolish enough to go into a gang house to attend a party or buy drugs and you are attacked, there will be higher penalties for the offender because you were inside a house. The bill defines a home invasion crime as occurring in any home, not just your own…
…An offender who attacks a dairy owner in the living room behind his or her shop will be covered by the new law, but not if the attack happens in the shop. Armed robberies inside shops have increased rapidly but the bill doesn't apply to them.

"There are dozens of other anomalies. Higher penalties apply when the victim is in a rest home but not in a hospital; if the victim is in a tent or caravan but not in a motel or boarding house; if the victim is in any house but not in their own garage.

"A stranger who rapes a child in the child's house is covered by the bill, but not if the rapist is known to the child and is lawfully on the premises.

Justice Minister, Tony Ryall, says Mr Goff is just playing politics and Parliament has the opportunity to reflect public opinion. He seems confident that he will get the numbers in the House and feels Mr Goff is trying to steal the 'tough on crime' mantle, by muddying the waters.

Scoop understands that the select committee was divided on the report back and since the committee in question is one of those split 50/50 it is likely the Bill will be reported back without substantial amendment and a commentary that is intensely polarised in opinion.

Law and order will dominate the House this week, it must be getting close to election time.

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