by Murray Tennent-Brown
Communications / Media Advisor
Sensible Sentencing Trust Wellington Region
The New Zealand criminal justice system is not just under-performing in its responsibilities to law-abiding New Zealanders, it is failing.
Contrary to the ideological belief of some, the justice system needs to work for the law-abiding, not the law-breaking. As far back as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke in the 17th century it was identified that citizens within civilized society give up their right to execute summary justice and retribution in exchange for protection from the state. This is known as ‘social contract theory’. The state in turn utilises departments such as the police, the courts, and corrections, coupled with legislation such as the Crimes Act, to fulfil its obligation to protect its citizens. Collectively this process is referred to as the criminal justice system. The criminal justice system is an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. People who do not go over the edge do not end up in the criminal justice system unless there is a miscarriage of justice.
What has come to pass in recent years has been the ideological viewpoint that it is the responsibility of the criminal justice system to not only deal with criminals, but somehow, magically, to prevent them from committing crime in the first place. To suggest for a moment, that it is the responsibility of the criminal justice system to address the underlying causes of crime, is a fallacy that has been accepted into our thinking without rigorous examination. As an example of this point, the 1990’s experiment of Community Policing was ‘refreshed’ in 2006. It aims for police to be able to better prevent crime before it occurs. Not only is it naive, it is also wholly unrealistic. The fact is that police know this too and if it were anything other than political window-dressing perhaps the police would allocate more than approximately 1% of their annual budget to it. Make no mistake, the criminal justice system is not, and was never intended to be, the attempted preventative welfare-style organisation that it has come to resemble today. What the criminal justice system does is carry the collective stick of society and with it the responsibility for keeping law-abiding citizens safe from criminals; and in that seemingly straight-forward task, it is failing.
The government of the day chooses how to spend money within the justice system. If it chooses to spend that money on rehabilitation initiatives and put plasma screens in cells while thousands of kids in New Zealand grow up in violent homes and go to school without having had breakfast, then that is its prerogative as it is run by democratically elected officials whose fate is ultimately decided by voters. What must not, and cannot be allowed to happen, is that such decisions are implemented in a manner that undermines or infringes the right of law-abiding citizens to protection from criminals. The responsibility of the justice system to protect the law-abiding public must not be a political football that can be kicked around at will dependent on political persuasion.
Whether attempts to rehabilitate criminals should be made is open to debate, whether such attempts do or do not work, and what strategies work best to reduce re-offending. Debate is healthy in this area and it is in this area that the findings of sound research can be applied. What should not be up for debate, however, is the right of law-abiding citizens to be protected from those who have crossed the line and committed crime. The right to be protected from crime is clearly enshrined in Article Three of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person”. Crime is the single biggest threat to this right.
Under current sentencing laws there are four objectives: accountability, deterrence, rehabilitation, and protection. I propose for this to be changed to simply one: protection. It is the only one of the four that can be regarded as being in any way objective. Let’s look at all these current objectives.
Accountability. To whom? For what? How do you define accountability? Is someone accountable if they say sorry? And is it even relevant? After all saying sorry after the fact does not change the reality that the crime has been committed. These are questions that will garner different answers from different people. It is a measurement impossible to quantify and will resultantly always leave one side feeling that it was not met.
Deterrence: To whom? For what? Different sentences will act as different deterrents to different people. For some a stretch in prison may be a deterrent, for others it may not. Again it is a vague concept that cannot be quantified or satisfied.
Rehabilitation: If rehabilitation is to occur within the criminal justice system it needs to occur independently of, and after, sentencing. Whether or not rehabilitation occurs when an offender is in the criminal justice system should in no way affect the sentence handed down by the judge. Rehabilitation should not be a goal of sentencing and should be implemented as a secondary consideration (if and where appropriate) to the goal of protection.
And this brings us to protection; the only responsibility that matters when it comes to sentencing a criminal. If protection is made the sole aim of a sentence the judge is not then required to walk a tight-rope whilst balancing these so-called ‘objectives’. Instead, they ask themselves this: “Is the sentence I am imposing serving to keep law-abiding citizens safe from this criminal”? If the answer is yes New Zealand will have a justice system that works. If the answer is no, the judiciary are not doing their job.
In summary the Sensible Sentencing Trust is not a radical right-wing group as its opponents continually try to make out. It has many members and supporters who have themselves been victims of serious crime, or who have had friends and family who have been. These are people who come from all walks of lives, all political persuasions, and who sadly are only too well aware of the failing of our criminal justice system in its current form to protect law-abiding New Zealander’s from the significant number of serious criminals in this country.
The Sensible Sentencing Trust acknowledges that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution that will solve New Zealand’s rampant crime rates. We accept that the underlying causes of crime are often complex and difficult to understand; if they weren’t the problem would’ve likely been sorted and we would all be spending our time on far more enjoyable pursuits. What we are clear on however, is that New Zealand’s criminal justice system has incrementally lost its way and now serves the criminal better than the law-abiding citizen, and for that matter, the victims of their crimes.
New Zealand once was, and can be again, one of the safest countries in the world if we have the will and determination to stand up against crime and refuse to accept it as a part of our lives. We all have a right to be safe within our own homes, streets, and communities. We will continue to fight for that right and advocate for a tough stance to be taken against those who would have those rights taken away from us.