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Criminal Justice Reform Bill has first reading

Criminal Justice Reform Bill has first reading

A new bill, part of a significant new policy package that aims to reduce criminal offending, increase certainty around penalties given to those who break the law and address New Zealand's rising prison population, had its first reading in Parliament today.

The Criminal Justice Reform Bill will give effect to the legislative components of the Effective Interventions initiatives for the criminal justice system announced by the government in August.

The Effective Interventions work consists of three broad themes: tilting the balance earlier to prevent crime; using alternatives to prison where this is appropriate; and adopting smarter uses of prison resources.

The package comprises a range of initiatives in addition to the changes to legislation. For instance, this government is committing extra resources to extending restorative justice programmes to further help meet the needs of victims. New drug and alcohol treatment facilities for prisoners have also been announced.

"Building safer communities is a key driver of the Effective Interventions initiatives as is curbing New Zealand's growing prison muster, the growth of which is at odds with the long term decline in New Zealand's crime rate," Mark Burton said.

The Bill comprises two parts: § The first part of the Bill provides for the establishment of a sentencing council. The council was recommended by the Law Commission and will be responsible for issuing sentencing and parole guidelines. § The second part of the Bill includes provisions for the introduction of a clear hierarchy of sentences and establishes three new non-custodial sentences. This part also includes changes to the parole eligibility regime. Under the Bill, home detention will become a sentence in its own right rather than a way of serving a sentence of imprisonment as it is currently. "Home detention's effectiveness is well established. It has low reconviction and re-imprisonment rates when compared to prison sentences, and high compliance rates. Home detention also aids rehabilitation by ensuring that offenders maintain pre-existing responsibilities to their family and community."

Both of the new community based sentences – community detention and intensive supervision – will provide a higher level of restriction and supervision of offenders than either of the existing community based sentences. Community-based sentences will also include a greater emphasis on the acquisition of basic work and living skills, while ensuring the offender remains accountable to the community.

"The Bill builds on this Labour-led government's reforms contained in the Bail Act 2000, the Sentencing Act 2002 and the Parole Act 2002 that led to serious and repeat offenders receiving more severe punishments. There will be no retreat from that policy for that class of offender," Mark Burton said.

"Importantly, judges will now have a greater range of options when sentencing offenders, particularly at the lower levels of offending. Sentences can be used that genuinely fit the specific circumstances of the offence and the offender. If a judge believes that home detention is the appropriate sentence, he or she can make that decision at the time of sentencing.

"Home detention will only be an option for offenders who are a low risk to the community. Those who are nearing parole for more serious crimes will no longer be able to apply for 'back-end' home detention, which was introduced by the National government in 1999." This certainty in sentencing also extends to planned changes to the parole regime. Under the Bill, inmates serving sentences of more than 12 months will not eligible for parole until they have served at least two-thirds of their sentence. Prisoners sentenced to twelve months or less will serve their whole sentence.

"All those involved in a case: the victims, the Police and of course the offender, know that the offender will be serving the lion's share of the sentence from the outset."

"A key component of the planned changes is the establishment of a new sentencing council, which will help bring consistency and transparency to sentencing. The council will address the considerable inconsistency in sentencing, particularly for less serious offending, that has been identified in research carried out by the Law Commission. The council will also play an important role in ensuring wider input into the development of sentencing policy," Mark Burton said.

The changes contained in the Bill will help more effectively manage New Zealand's growing prison population, which at current levels places New Zealand fourth in the OECD for the number of people imprisoned per capita. From a peak of 7,610 inmates in March 2006, forecasts indicate that the prison muster could be nearing 9,000 within five years.

"The social and economic consequences of the growing prison population, particularly on families, are significant and I don't believe this is a situation that most New Zealanders reflect on with any pride."

"I believe this Bill will be an important contribution to implementing the Effective Interventions initiatives, which will help build safer communities for our families and communities," Mark Burton said.


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