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Goff Speech: Sentencing Bill And Parole Bill

Hon Phil Goff

Minister of Justice

Speech Notes

1 May 2002 - ready for publication/broadcast as it has now been delivered in the house

Sentencing Bill And Parole Bill Third Readings

[Notes:

- The Sentencing Bill and the Parole Bill were formerly jointly the Sentencing and Parole Reform Bill. They were split at the committee stage in the House.

- With Phil Goff overseas, today’s speech will be delivered by associate Justice Minister, Paul Swain.]

The Bills respond to public concerns about the criminal justice system reflected in the outcome of the referendum at the last Election. They make fundamental changes to sentencing and parole which are designed to enhance community safety.

Clause 7 of the Sentencing Bill sets out the purposes of sentencing including holding the offender accountable, denouncing the offence, and deterring future offending.

In line with community expectations the Sentencing Bill has a number of provisions to ensure tougher punishment for the worst offenders:

- Sentences near the maximum penalty must generally be imposed for very serious crimes and the maximum penalty must now be imposed in the worst cases.

- Murders committed in circumstances with significant aggravating factors - such as lengthy planning, extreme brutality, a home invasion, or more than one murder victim - will now generally receive a sentence of life imprisonment with a minimum term of at least 17 years. That is just the starting point and these terms can and should on occasions be much longer.

- Preventive detention - which is also effectively a life sentence - will now be available for a wider range of sexual and violent offending. It will no longer require a previous record of such offending, and will be available for those aged 18 and over (instead of the current 21 and over).

In the Parole Bill there will no longer be the nonsense of automatic release after two-thirds of a sentence. Offenders will be able to be kept in prison until the very end of the term imposed by the court. They will not be able to be released earlier unless the Parole Board is satisfied that they will not be an undue risk to the safety of the community.

For the first time, the protection of the community will be the overriding consideration in parole decisions.

The “serious violent offender” category in the current legislation is abolished. All offenders sentenced to terms of imprisonment of more than 2 years but less than life will have the same parole eligibility unless the court orders otherwise. That is because the current offence is a very poor predictor of risk, and basing parole eligibility on the current offence achieves nothing by way of protecting the public.

This does not mean that serious offenders will be let out earlier. If they pose a risk, they will be kept in, right to the end of their sentence. Also, judges will be able to impose minimum terms of up to two-thirds of the sentence for serious offenders before parole can be considered. This will provide reassurance to the public that serious offenders posing a threat to community safety will not be released on parole at an early date.

A new body, the New Zealand Parole Board, will make decisions concerning the early release of offenders from imprisonment. The Board will have a mix of full-time and part-time members with the skills and experience to make decisions of this kind. It will be chaired by a High Court or retired High Court Judge, and every parole panel considering cases will be chaired by a District Court judge.

Inmates in future will not have the automatic right to parole hearings every year. Parole hearings will be able to be postponed for up to 2 years for finite sentences, and for up to 3 years for life imprisonment and preventive detention when there is no prospect of parole for the offender.

The two Bills are not only about getting tough on criminals. There are a number of changes to community-based sanctions to improve their effectiveness. The value of restorative justice processes in holding the offender accountable and meeting the needs of victims is recognised. There is provision for the court and the Parole Board to take the outcomes of these processes into account in sentencing and parole decisions.

The Sentencing Bill abolishes suspended sentences of imprisonment. They have failed to achieve their intended purposes. They do not act as a greater deterrent than either prison or community-based sanctions.

Where offenders require immediate custody (whether by way of prison or home detention), that is what they should get. But the government recognises that it is not always in the public interest that offenders currently receiving suspended sentences are given immediate custody. For example, they may be undertaking a rehabilitation programme or fulfilling an agreement reached with a victim through a restorative justice process. The Bill makes adequate provision for a range of alternatives in these cases, such as adjournment of sentence, and it is intended that the courts use those alternatives.

The Sentencing Bill specifies aggravating factors that the court must take into account at sentencing. These include where the crime is motivated by hostility towards a group of persons who have a common characteristic such as race, religion, or sexual orientation.

Legislation against these so-called hate crimes already exists in the UK, US, and Canadian legislation. They cover situations where the victim is deliberately targeted because they have a particular characteristic.

This provision is not about political correctness. It addresses a type of criminal conduct that should receive increased punishment because it creates fear, anger and suspicion among groups in the community, escalates social tensions that can be destructive of tolerance and social cohesion and leads to community violence. Ethnic tension, for example, is the prime cause of violence in the world today.

Judges have traditionally taken into account the motive of the offender in determining sentences and the fact that hate is a motive is already viewed as an aggravating factor that results in a more severe penalty. The Bill gives statutory recognition to that.

The Sentencing Bill strengthens the presumption in favour of reparation for the victims of crime. The extent of the loss or harm that can be taken into account has been extended. Judges will be required to give reasons when reparation is not imposed in cases where there has been loss, damage or harm incurred by a victim.

The Sentencing Bill will clearly impose tougher sentences on the worst offenders and the Parole Bill will delay the release of those who pose most risk to the community. We have set aside $90 million in net additional expenditure over the next four years to cater mainly for the expected increase in the prison population of approximately 300-350 inmates. Essentially this increase will be caused by longer sentences being served by offenders from whom the community needs protection. These measures however must be supplemented by other action in early intervention, crime prevention and policing to turn around crime rates which grew rapidly in the 1990s before stabilising.

These Bills follow a very thorough examination and a careful consideration of all submissions by the Select Committee. They significantly improve the law in respect of sentencing and parole and will provide a solid foundation for our justice system.

Ends


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