Editorial: Populist pitch on justice just posturing

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Justice Minister Simon Power. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Justice Minister Simon Power. Photo / Mark Mitchell

It is a feather in any group's cap when not only the Prime Minister but the Justice Minister and the Police Minister queue up to address it.

A stamp of importance is conferred and the credibility of its viewpoint is enhanced.

So it was yesterday when John Key, Simon Power and Judith Collins spoke to a Sensible Sentencing Trust conference on victims' rights in Parliament's Banquet Hall.

All emphasised, quite reasonably, that the trust represents an important voice. But they also gave every impression of wishing to heed its policies.

Never mind that many of these are too extreme and too outmoded to find their way into any coherent justice reform package.

This all smacked of politicians who are too willing not only to respond to public annoyance, but to promote it.

Whether that sentiment is justified is too often irrelevant.

In support of what he described as victims' stake in the justice system, Mr Power was even willing to take aim at "those who have an institutional investment".

Justice belonged to the people, he said, not judges or lawyers, and change had to be driven from outside the system.

This populist approach will appeal to those convinced that judges are too lenient on criminals and take too little notice of their victims, and that many lawyers spend their time ripping off the system.

But it was also a slap in the face for the Chief Justice, who has suggested the increasing focus on victims' suffering carries a risk to justice.

That system, Dame Sian Elias pointed out, was designed to replace private vengeance with public prosecution and impartial decisions. The focus on victims threatened public ownership of justice and its detachment. "Courtrooms can now be very angry places," she said.

The Chief Justice is right. Victims can receive help from other agencies and can express their anger outside the court.

Calm should reign inside. Yet Mr Power said he was "not done yet" with measures to put victims first, and planned to give them more courtroom rights.

The Prime Minister, for his part, said he expected great things of the trust-backed three-strikes law.

He also noted that 8829 offenders are currently in prisons or police cells, the highest number ever.

He did not mention that the three-strikes law could substantially increase that population, as well as impose a considerable prison-building cost.

Nor was there an acknowledgment that the "lock 'em up and throw away the key" approach advocated by the trust has failed.

Another downside of the three-strikes law is that it removes judges' sentencing discretion.

Yet there was an illustration of the importance of this yesterday when disgraced former Government minister Roger McClay was sentenced to 300 hours' community service.

Doubtless, the instinct of the trust would have been to put him behind bars. But this would have served no purpose.

McClay has been shown to be what he is, not the man of honour so contrived by his public image.

Prison is not the answer to everything and judges should be free to explore other, more imaginative (but no less serious) means of punishment. Let McClay pay back the community for stealing from the community.

Before gaining power, John Key enunciated a compelling law and order approach that focused on stopping youngsters embarking on criminal careers.

It seemed he might be ready to eschew the punitive measures that are so often part and parcel of political posturing, recognise the complexity of the problem, and that there were no simplistic solutions.

A National Government might, it seemed, work with experts and the weight of evidence to win over the public to policies that offered a better prospect of correction and safety.

Now, however, it is busy tipping its hat to old-school approaches that have been in the ascendancy for years but palpably have not worked.

- NZ Herald

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