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Howard League for Penal Reform: Stewart Murray Wilson

Howard League for Penal Reform: Stewart Murray Wilson

19 August 2012


The Howard League wish to acknowledge and offer support for the work of Andrew McKenzie, the lawyer acting for Stewart Murray Wilson. The current media-fed public hysteria is disguising very important issues and principles on which a civilised society relies as a basis for a fair justice system. This is the very system we rely on to actually reduce victims and offending.

We appreciate public concerns around safety and all victim concerns must be recognised and supported. However, in doing so we must also ensure that the weighing of all the relevant issues is considered in a rational manner, something that is at risk of not occurring in this case. Media glee in the use of words such as beast, and the abandonment of responsible reporting actually cause harm, rather than assisting in good public outcomes. Again, whipped up fervour risks a populist knee jerk response.

The order that has been approved for the release of Wilson is likely the strictest set of conditions ever applied to an offender who has actually fulfilled the conditions of his original sentence. In effect, the living conditions, GPS monitoring, and supervision are tantamount to an extension of imprisonment to September 2025. Regardless of the like or dislike of Wilson, we as a society should be operating to a higher set of values, and we should not pick and choose to whom these apply. He has every right with his legal representation to test the validity of these in court.

The courts are tasked with considering all the relevant evidence, and claims and counterclaims are weighed and tested in a rational manner. We hear of the danger of reoffending, yet a counterclaim presented to the court based on historical data, shows those in Wilson's age group actually reoffend at a rate of 3%. That may be 3% too many, but it is important if Wilson is the exception that this be shown to be factual. A claim that it is so is not enough. The court order has regard to the type of offending and the manner in which past offending has been carried out (for example, whether Wilson actually has access to the tools and means he has used in the past).

Furthermore, issues of tenancy and rights of the tenant are in play. We may be discussing Wilson currently, but next time it may be someone else and we strip another right or we make it one step closer. The approach of the Whanganui Council in considering trespass, on which Barrister Michael Bott of the Howard League has publicly commented, is again the "anywhere but here approach". Who next? Where next? Hidden in our cities out of sight, the worst of all possible situations.

We all acknowledge the need to get this right, and penal populism and the media- fed frenzy, does not assist. We are one of the highest imprisoned societies in the Western world with devastating consequences for all of society, and we have built a conveyer belt of future victims. We are a country that holds up exceptions and pushes for knee jerk political reaction, often ignoring best international practice which produces far safer societies.

This case challenges us to hold up a higher yardstick for the greater good and to apply, regardless of our dislike for the offender, the same legal process and test to all in our society. If we react in haste and poor legal precedents are set, we open ourselves to the gradual erosion of the underpinnings of a rational justice system and, in the future, we retry those we dislike in the poorly informed court of public opinion. There is nothing in these actions that weakens in any way the safety of our society. That will only come about by political weakening of the strong foundations of law.
ends

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