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Criminal Justice Reform Bill Speech

Criminal Justice Reform Bill – First Reading

I move that the Criminal Justice Reform Bill now be read a first time. At the appropriate time I intend to move that the Bill be referred to the Justice and Electoral Committee.

The Bill will give effect to the legislative components of the Effective Interventions package of initiatives for the reform of the criminal justice system.

The aims of these initiatives, which were announced in August, are to reduce and prevent crime, address New Zealand's growing prison population, and take genuine steps to help build safer communities.

The initiatives focus on 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.

As members will be aware, the issue of the growing prison population is one of the most significant challenges facing the Justice sector. We have an increasing prison population that is at odds with the long-term overall decline in New Zealand's crime rate.

The social and economic consequences of imprisonment are significant and I don't believe the current situation is one in which most New Zealanders should, or do take any pride.
As the Prime Minister said when we announced the reforms contained in this Bill, further increases in the prison population are neither financially nor socially sustainable. Nor are they financially or socially desirable.

It's important to reiterate though that there will be no change in the tough approach this government has taken with serious and dangerous offenders. They will continue to go for prison – and for lengthy periods. The safety of the community will always be this government’s first priority.

The Criminal Justice Reform Bill comprises two parts. The first part provides for the establishment of a Sentencing Council, which will be responsible for producing sentencing and parole guidelines.

The Council will lead to significant improvements in sentencing consistency and transparency over time. The council will also play an important role in ensuring wider input into the development of sentencing policy

The Sentencing Act 2002 included considerable guidance to the judiciary when imposing sentence on offenders. It codified the purposes and principles of sentencing, listed aggravating and mitigating factors, and required judges to impose the maximum penalty available – or something close to it – in the worst cases.

The 2002 legislation, however, left a great deal of discretion in relation to sentence severity. Research undertaken for the Law Commission showed that this resulted in considerable inconsistency throughout the country in sentencing, particularly for less serious offending.

The Criminal Justice Reform Bill provides for Parliamentary scrutiny of the sentencing guidelines before they come into force. Once they are in place judges will be required to comply with the guidelines unless they are satisfied in an individual case that it would be contrary to the interests of justice to do so. This will leave room for discretion in appropriate cases.

The Sentencing Council will comprise a mix of judicial and non-judicial members. The non-judicial members will be appointed by the Governor General on the recommendation of the House of Representatives. This recognises the special constitutional role of the Council. Judicial members will be appointed by the heads of bench of the Court of Appeal, High Court and District Court respectively.

I am confident that the Sentencing Council will prove a valuable addition to our sentencing framework. I note that similar bodies have been established in Victoria, New South Wales and the United Kingdom in recent years, enabling us to draw on their experience in developing our own Council.

My recent meetings with the Chair of the UK Sentencing Council – Chief Justice Lord Phillips – and the Chairman of the Law Commission of England and Wales – Justice Etherton – strengthened my confidence in the structure provided for in this Bill. Sentencing guidelines and parole reform, which I will refer to later, are a proven mechanism for managing the effective use of penal resources. Under the Bill, the Sentencing Council must assess the cost-effectiveness of its proposals by modelling the effect on the prison population in developing guidelines for particular offences.

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.

An amendment to the Parole Act sees the tightening up of the management of child sex offenders under the extended supervision regime. Minor amendments to the Bail Act and the Prisoners’ and Victims’ Claims Act 2005 are also included. The latter defers the sunset clause that would otherwise take effect on 1 July 2007.

Most importantly, this part of the Bill significantly increases the range of non-custodial sentences available to the courts. There are three new sentences.

Home detention will be established as a sentence in its own right – rather than a way of serving a term of imprisonment as at present. The effectiveness of this penalty is well established – there are low rates of reconviction and re-imprisonment, high compliance rates, and positive support for offenders’ reintegration and rehabilitation – and it is seen as an appropriate alternative for those who would otherwise receive a short sentence of imprisonment. Establishing Home Detention as a sentence in its own right will afford far greater opportunity to the courts to shape sentences to fit particular circumstances.

The Bill includes two new community-based sentences – community detention and intensive supervision. Each of these new sentences will provide a higher level of restriction and supervision of offenders than the two existing sentences of community work and supervision. Community detention, which involves an electronically monitored curfew, will be particularly suitable for those whose offending has a specific pattern or tends to occur at particular times. Intensive supervision provides a larger and more complex range of special conditions than currently available under the supervision sentence.

The Bill also includes a new process called judicial monitoring, which will be available to be imposed as a special condition with the home detention and intensive supervision sentences. Judges will receive progress reports and be empowered to order the offender to attend a hearing, which is intended to enhance and maintain judicial confidence in these non-custodial sentences.

In addition to these new measures, the Bill contains various other reforms to improve the effectiveness of the existing community-based sentences. There will be a greater emphasis on the acquisition of basic work and life skills, which can be a major factor in preventing reoffending. Enhancements to the community work sentence to ensure that this is an effective sanction and holds offenders accountable for the harm their offending has caused are also included in the Bill.

As a result of these changes judges will 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.

The final matter I wish to refer to in introducing this Bill is the proposal for the reform of parole eligibility. Since 1993, offenders subject to finite sentences have generally been eligible for parole after serving one third of their terms. There is provision in the Sentencing Act for a judge to impose a longer term in certain circumstances but this is done in only a minority of cases.

The 2002 legislation abolished automatic release at two thirds of sentence. This has resulted in a long period of parole eligibility, which has increased the uncertainty about how long an offender will actually serve.

The Criminal Justice Reform Bill will postpone eligibility for consideration of parole until two thirds of an offender’s sentence, and reinforce the requirement that release on parole should be determined solely by the risk of reoffending. The new regime will lead to a significant increase in the proportion of their sentences that offenders are required to serve.

These changes will establish more certainty in sentencing. 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.

The parole reforms will come into effect when the sentencing guidelines are in place. This will ensure that overall objectives of the Bill can be met.

I believe that the reforms contained in this Bill will help reduce criminal offending, increase certainty around penalties given to those who break the law, and help address New Zealand's rising prison population.

I commend this Bill to the House.


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