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Three Strikes: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Three Strikes: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Jamie Whyte, ACT Party Leader

Crime is on the decline, not just in New Zealand but across the Western World.

One simple reason is that crime is mainly committed by young people. And Western populations are getting older. A population with a smaller share of 16 to 30-year-olds is likely to have a lower crime rate.

On top of this, those few young people we still have are becoming more civilized. Contrary to media stories of binge-drinking and drug-taking, today’s youth are drinking less, smoking less, taking fewer drugs and staying at school longer. Nor do teenagers get pregnant as often as they used to.

Even if governments had done nothing about crime directly, we should be unsurprised by its decline. Yet governments have also contributed to falling crime rates.

In the UK, for example, crime rates had been climbing steadily since WWII. They peaked in the mid-1990s when John Major’s Conservative government began requiring judges to impose longer prison sentences. Tony Blair’s Labour government continued the “tough on crime” policy. Since the mid-1990s, the British prison population has doubled to 85,000 and the crime rate has more than halved. A similar story could be told for the United States.

National seeks credit for declining crime rate here in New Zealand. But they are not responsible for it. Declining crime here is caused in part by the aging and civilizing of the population, which isn’t National’s doing. And it is caused in part by a tougher sentencing. That isn’t National’s doing either.

The Three Strikes for violent crime policy is an ACT policy.

We looked at the successful three strike laws overseas and made modifications to ensure that no one convicted of stealing a pencil or smoking a joint would be sent to jail for life.

ACT’s Three Strikes policy was carefully designed to catch only repeat offenders who committed crimes of serious violence, including sexual violation.

When ACT campaigned on the policy in 2008 we met widespread hostility, not just from the political left but from a justice establishment that has swallowed the idea that the “criminals are victims too”.

The National Party now enthusiastically trumpet as their own what has become a highly successful policy. Yet in 2008 they were opposed to it. The then Justice Minister told his aides that New Zealand would have a Three Strikes law “over his dead body”. Well, we got the policy and, although Simon Power’s body did not expire, it did retire unexpectedly from politics.

At the time, Labour politicians quoted Kim Workman’s prediction that Three Strikes would fail to reduce crime and would result in our prisons over-flowing with new inmates.

Where are we today, four years after Three Strikes became law?

There are now over 4,000 first-strikers – aggravated robbers and rapists, very violent offenders whose crime carries a maximum sentence of at least 7 years. 4,000 is about what you would expect projecting the forward the 2010 number of violent crimes.

In accordance with the law, upon conviction, all of these first-strikers received a solemn warning from the Judge which goes something like this: You have been convicted of a “strike” offence. If you offend again you will receive a sentence to be served without parole. If you offend a third time, you will go to jail for the maximum time prescribed for the offence you are convicted of.

Here is a startling fact. Only 37 first-strikers have been convicted of a second such offence. This is a level of success that even ACT did not predict.

Why is it working? It is impossible to prove why offenders stop offending but the certain prospect of spending a long time in prison must be a major factor. Three Strikes for violent offending is working. The popular leftwing idea that criminals do not respond to incentives is absurd. It has been refuted so often that those persist in peddling it should be laughed out of court.

We know who the 37 second-strikers are. 46% of them have convictions for “strike” offences that were committed before the legislation came into effect, and therefore don’t count as “strikes”. 38% committed their first “strike” offence while on bail or parole. Of the first ten of the second-strikers, three committed their second “strike” offence while on bail awaiting sentence for the first. And their second strike offence was the same as their first.

These are very dangerous men. With the judge’s warning ringing in their ears, and before even being sentenced, they went out and committed exactly the same offence again. In two of the three cases the offence was indecent assault. Society is safer when such men are in jail.

Of those 37 second-strikers, nine are “on the street”. In most cases it is because of judicial leniency for strikes one and two.

Three Strikes was necessary because although Parliament has passed laws saying violent offenders should receive long prison sentences, the judiciary was taking no notice. Everyone deserves a second chance – even aggravated robbers. But they do not deserve five or ten chances.

Prior to Three Strikes the average offender had appeared in court eleven times before they were sent to prison. The average person never appears in court for a felony offence. These offenders had been to court eleven times and each appearance could have been for multiple offences.

Before Three Strikes dramatically changed the rules, an offender may have been convicted of 20 or 30 charges – many of them violent – before a judge finally decided to send him to jail. Violent offenders now get two chances and, if they show they cannot learn and offend similarly again, they go to jail for at least seven years.

If their third offence is an aggravated robbery or a rape, they go to jail for 14 or 20 years respectively, with no parole. This will be 14 or 20 years when law abiding members of the public can go about their business without being in danger from that particular thug.

What is the lesson? While National now happily takes credit for a measure that they only reluctantly agreed to, the government has not asked: “Is there another area where Three Strikes could also reduce crime?”

ACT says there is. Burglary is a crime where Three Strikes would be appropriate and successful.

Appropriate because burglary is out of control. It is an under-reported crime because the public knows there is a poor detection rate. Treasury estimates there are at least 115,000 burglaries a year, although only 55,000 are reported to the police – assuming police figures are honest, about which there is now some doubt.

Over four years, that is the equivalent of every household in Auckland being burgled. Over a lifetime in New Zealand, you will be lucky to go without being burgled at some point.

Burglary is a crime that disproportionately harms the poor in our society. Those of us who are well-off usually have insurance. If we are burgled it is extremely unpleasant – our refuge from the world has been violated and items of great sentimental value are often stolen along with the TV and the iPad.

But for less well-off people burglary is a disaster. Often the poor cannot afford insurance. If someone is on a benefit, the priority is feeding and clothing their children. Imagine the impact of a burglary on a solo mum who has scrimped and saved and bought her child an iPad so she can keep up with her peers. For that household, the burglary is a disaster.

Imagine the frustration that solo mum must feel when she goes to the police to report the burglary, only to be told that they do not have the resources to investigate the crime. The best they can offer is a claim number for her insurance – for insurance she has been unable to afford.

Burglars are a blight on our society but particularly for the poor.

Three strikes for burglary is also appropriate because a disproportionate number of burglaries are committed by professional burglars – criminals who have decided that burglary is a crime that pays.

One burglar appeared before the court earlier this year for sentence on his 389th and 390th burglary convictions. The sentences he received for his 388 previous convictions had obviously failed to either deter or prevent him from continuing to pursue his chosen career.

Here is how Three Strikes for burglary will work. On his first conviction for burglary the offender will receive a first warning from the judge. The sentence may or may not be custodial. If he goes to jail, he will be entitled to parole.

If the burglar is convicted a second time, the Judge will give him a final warning: do this again and you go to jail for at least three years. If there is a next time, the burglar will not be eligible for parole. He will serve the full three years.

Looking at the effects of our Three Strikes for violent crime policy and at the effects of similar policies overseas, we expect that this policy would reduce burglary by about a third: that is, by about 40,000 a year.

Perhaps you are not concerned about your own personal security. Then think of the elderly who feel unsafe in their own homes. Or the poor who cannot afford security systems or insurance and for whom burglary is devastating. They deserve your sympathy and your vote for this policy.

Those who go soft on penalties for crime because they reckon the criminals cannot help themselves show heartless insensitivity to the victims of crime. The poor woman whose home is invaded and her possessions stolen certainly can’t help it. Why should she be sacrificed to the half-baked and morally corrupt theorizing of affluent politicians?

National and Labour are not going to tackle burglary. Only a vote for ACT can reduce this scourge on our society.

We proved our critics wrong with Three Strikes for serious violent offences. The prison population didn’t explode. And try as they might, the journalists cannot find some poor urchin who has been locked up for seven or 10 years for stealing a chocolate bar. There never will be such a story.

Burglary has become a blight on our society because the risk for burglar is too low. Less that 3% of burglaries result in a conviction. Less than 1% result in a prison sentence. And the average prison sentence is only 15 months, half of which is served. A 1% chance of spending eight months in prison is insufficient deterrent.

Tougher sentencing would have stopped Mr. 390 before he caused so much misery, either by deterring him or by keeping him out of circulation for a greater portion of his criminal career.

We believe he should have been stopped years ago.

You can stop him and other professional burglars by voting ACT on 20 September.


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