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A major debate on New Zealand’s approach to justice is underway with the Coalition Government’s summit last week and proposals to slash the prison population by 30%.

I am open to new ideas as to how we can better prevent young people getting onto the treadmill of our justice system, but equally firm that our first priority must be the victims of crime.

The Government’s arbitrary target to reduce the prison population by 30% or 3,000 inmates is a mistake. If you do the crime, you do the time. I see no evidence of excessive sentencing by our courts. It is very rare for people to get a custodial sentence for minor offending. The vast bulk of our prisoners have committed serious multiple crimes.   

I do not share the moral panic over New Zealand’s imprisonment level. Minister Davis has claimed it’s the second highest in the world. This is factually incorrect as pointed out by justice academic Dr Liam Martin who says we are now fifth and 60th of 220 countries world- wide.  The numbers equate to two people per 1,000 population and are growing at about 3% per year, not much more than our population growth. My fear is for public safety with the Government’s plans to soften our bail, parole and sentencing laws.

A controversial issue is National’s ‘Three Strikes law’ passed in 2010 that new Justice Minister Andrew Little wants to repeal. This law only applies to offenders over 18 and to serious, violent and sexual offenders. There is no parole or early release on a second strike and a maximum sentence on a third strike.  The three strikes law has been applied to 9,943 cases with 207 in our Nelson court. The average number of criminal convictions for a person on a second strike was 26 and a third strike, 64. These are not one off offenders but serious criminals! Last week this law was applied to a third striker in Whanganui who got seven years for a stabbing he committed while on bail. He had previously assaulted a person with a piece of wood causing serious injuries and stalked and sexually assaulted a 17 year old. The public needs protecting from these sort of offenders.    

The three strikes law is keeping the public safer but is also reducing reoffending. When we compare reoffending rates for the five years before and after the law was passed, a third fewer are reoffending. Criminals are getting the message that the public has a low tolerance of repeated violence.

The right way to get the prison population down is not by softening our bail and sentencing laws but by going hard on the causes of crime. I am all for programmes that target drug use including better rehab, improved mental health services and better support for families. We need to get better at targeting effective services at those at-risk children.      

National will not be opposing everything the Government tries in reforming our justice system. Our focus will be on ensuring any change delivers on making our communities safer and not just letting people out from prisons.

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