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Figures Confirm Criminals Getting Off Too Lightly

Sunday 27th Jun 1999
Patricia Schnauer
Media Release -- Justice

Figures Confirm Criminals Getting Off Too Lightly

Some criminals are being let out of jail after serving on average a sentence of just 9% of the maximum sentence for their crime, according to new figures released by ACT Justice Spokesman Patricia Schnauer.

Between 1994 and 1998 2141 people were convicted of threatening to kill or do grievous bodily harm, 7 years maximum, (home invasion maximum 10 years.) Of the 2141 convicted, only 487 or 23% were sent to prison and served on average 7.9 months in jail. Just 9% of the maximum, but, 151 of those offenders only served 3 months in jail or 3.5% of the maximum sentence of seven years.

Mrs Schnauer said there is a huge gap between the maximum penalty for offences set down by Parliament and the sentences being imposed by the Courts.

Between1994 - 1998 the figures reveal a disturbing sentencing pattern for offences with a usual maximum sentence of 5 years, 7 years, 10 years or 14 years. (Under the Government's Home Invasion legislation passed through Parliament this week an additional 3 - 5 years will be added to the maximum sentence)

Over that four-year period 2632 people were convicted of assault with a weapon, 5 years maximum sentence, (home invasion maximum 8 years.) Of that number, 746 people, or 28%, were sent to prison. The average prison stay was 10.2 months. This means the average sentence served is 17% of the maximum, with 123 people serving three months or just 5% of the maximum sentence of five years.

Robbery with a maximum sentence of 10 years (home invasion 13 years) 597 convictions, 56% went to jail with an average sentence of 15.9 months, 13% of the maximum of 10 years.

Aggravated robbery carrying a maximum sentence of 14 years (home invasion 19 years). 1870 convictions, 76% sent to prison. Average sentence served 40.1 months or 24% of the maximum of 14 years.

"From these figures it is clear that the higher the maximum penalty the higher the percentage of people sent to prison. In other words the only way that Parliament seems to have been able to get the Courts and the Parole Board to detain offenders longer is to increase the maximum sentence by law.

"It seems crazy, but if Parliament in fact wanted an offender to spend an actual five years in jail for an offence then Parliament would have to set the maximum in some cases 9 or 10 times that figure. This strongly supports a Truth in Sentencing approach.

"Secondly, the public is right, dangerous offenders with a high propensity to reoffend are being inadequately sentenced and are being released back into the community without proper regard for the safety of law abiding citizens. At least if people are locked up in prison and serving proper sentences they cannot re-offend.

Thirdly, the level of sentences in many cases falls far short of any adequate deterrent for offenders. Almost all the above custodial sentences imposed would be reduced by one half to one third and some would be get a further reduction from the Parole Board. There is much talk about sentences not acting as a deterrent. On these figures because the average sentences are so hopelessly low, there is every possibility they probably don't provide an adequate deterrent.

"These figures support the view held by many that sentencing practices in New Zealand fall far short from what is expected and required to protect New Zealanders in their homes."

"These disturbing sentencing patterns add weight to my call to remove sentencing practices from becoming a political issue in election year. That is why I am drafting a Private Member's Bill to establish a Sentencing Commission.

"Right now the Court of Appeal sets sentencing guidelines as and when cases come before it."

"A Sentencing Commission will ensure that the penalties se t down by Parliament are reflected better in Court imposed sentences. It will also bring greater consistency to sentencing, particularly for more serious offences

"A Commission would de-politicise the sentencing process. If decisions as to the length of sentences were removed from Members of Parliament then I believe we would end up with a criminal justice system freer of popular and political pressure resulting in more appropriate and consistent sentences.

"The advantage of having a Sentencing Commission is that it could continuously monitor and evaluate the guidelines which it has produced and would, on a regular basis, make recommendations to Government how to improve or amend the guidelines.

"The fact that sentencing guidelines were produced by a Commission, formulated under delegated statutory authority and ratified by the Parliament, means that they would be arguably more constitutionally sound than judge-made guidelines.

"I was shocked to find just how low the true extent of imprisonment and serving of sentences is in this country.

"These figures confirm that the public is well justified in their concern that criminals in this country are getting away with sentences that are far too lenient. It is time that we got back to the old maxim 'if you do the crime, you do the time," said Patricia Schnauer.


For more information visit ACT online at http://www.act.org.nz or contact the ACT Parliamentary Office at act@parliament.govt.nz.

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