Conflict over 'soft' home detention option

By Nicola Shepheard

One night last November, Lesley Caudwell drove drunk and took the life of Tara Groenestein, a stranger to her.

Caudwell was almost three times over the legal breath-alcohol limit and travelling at 100km/h when she smashed into the 36-year-old's car at an intersection near Pukekohe, south of Auckland.

Police found an empty wine bottle in Caudwell's front passenger footwell. She told officers she'd been "trolleying it today" and drinking "lots of wine". Groenestein died at the scene.

Caudwell, now 42, was charged with driving while incapable and causing death, and dangerous driving causing death.

At her fourth court appearance she pleaded guilty. At sentencing, Judge Andree Wiltens took this into account, as well as the fact Caudwell suffered bipolar disorder and agoraphobia, and was caring for her cancer-stricken mother. Caudwell got a year's home detention and was disqualified from driving for four years.

Now, almost a year after Groenestein died, the Crown is appealing the sentence.

Caudwell is one of 1493 people on home detention. Her case, like that of Jason Peters who was sentenced to a year's home detention after smashing into a car carrying Michelle Davies while over the legal alcohol limit, leaving her brain-injured, raises questions about how home detention sentences are being applied.

Felix Groenestein knows nothing will erase the pain of losing his daughter. But to him, Caudwell's penalty "defies all logic".

"The fact that [she] is really not being held accountable, that really hurts. Human life is worth more than that. This person didn't work anyway, so she was home all day. She gets to carry on life basically as it was before, but we don't."

Felix is on medication for depression, his relationship with wife Jill has suffered, and other family members are getting counselling.

"It's turned our lives upside-down," he says.

Felix doesn't understand why Caudwell's mental health problems were relevant. "That's not what caused the crash - what caused the crash was her getting paralytic and driving."

The threat of home detention won't deter drunk-drivers, he argues. Even the maximum sentence Caudwell could have received - five years' imprisonment - wouldn't be enough. He believes drunk-driving causing death should attract the same penalties as manslaughter.

"It's not just because my daughter was killed by a drunk-driver. I spent 15 years in volunteer fire brigades and I've seen hundreds of drunk-driving fatalities, and every one was preventable."

The Groenesteins aren't alone in their conviction that home detention doesn't cut it for drunk-drivers. Michelle Davies and her family agree. So does the family of Christchurch man Nathan King, 28, who died after being hit head-on by a car driven by Daniel James Wheeler, whose alcohol level was more than twice the limit.

Wheeler, 31, was last week sentenced to 12 months' home detention, 250 hours' community work and ordered to pay reparation of $11,000. He'd been drinking at his mother's wake after nursing her in her dying days. He took out a mortgage to pay the $11,000.

King's father, Merv, called the sentence a farce.

Victoria University criminologist John Pratt supports home detention in general, arguing it's an effective punishment for low-level, low-risk criminals and saves taxpayers thousands of dollars.

But he says: "I'm troubled that the courts are using home detention in these cases - where people have made deliberate choices to drink and drive. Apart from the sentence not being in proportion to the harm inflicted on others, I also think it's one of the few areas where deterrent sentencing stands some chance of success - these sentences weaken that effect."

These cases reflect a wider sense that home detention is a soft option and reveal tensions between society's needs for punishment, deterrence and rehabilitation.

Until last year, home detention was used to help reintegrate prisoners into society at the end of their jail sentence and to ease prison numbers. Then a law change meant it could be given as a stand-alone sentence for offenders judged to be at low risk of reoffending and no risk to the community.

It costs $21,907 a year to keep someone in home detention, compared with $76,639 in a prison.

As well as being cheaper, proponents argue home detention is more conducive to rehabilitation and therefore better for society. Minor offenders won't be schooled in crime by more hardened convicts in jail; detainees can meet family duties and keep their jobs, paying taxes.

And home detention is less disruptive for offenders' children, although charity groups see a need for neighbours to give practical support to parents on home detention, such as help with driving children around, to ease the strain on families.

The Government says the recidivism rate is lower than that for people who serve equivalent jail sentences (however Canterbury University criminologist Greg Newbold argues these two groups aren't comparable).

Kim Workman is a former police officer and prison reformer who now co-leads the Rethinking Crime and Punishment think-tank. He says we need more, not fewer, community-based sentences such as home detention.

The international research suggests short prison stays of six to 12 months don't reduce re-offending - and the lower the sentence, the more likely people are to re-offend.

Some offenders say they would rather go to prison because it's a familiar environment.

Workman argues we are too jail-happy, and that public safety would be better served by targeting the underlying causes of crime.

He points to New Zealand research suggesting nearly 60 per cent of all inmates have at least one major personality disorder, one in four have suffered major depression and 90 per cent have a drug or alcohol problem.

You can hardly call the Government soft on crime, says Corrections minister Phil Goff.

New Zealand has a high rate of imprisonment, at 188 people per 100,000 population, compared with England at 152, Australia at 130 and most European countries at less than 100.

Our prison population has swelled by 3300, or 71 per cent, since 1999. Law changes mean those committing the most serious offences are serving longer sentences and parole is more often being denied.

Even tough-justice lobby group Sensible Sentencing see a place for home detention. But it claims the sentence is being given to violent and repeat offenders, against government assurances that it wouldn't.

National Party justice spokesman Simon Power elicited Corrections figures showing in the 2006/2007 year, more than half - 801 - of home detainees were convicted of violence, sex or drug offences (426 on violence offences, 89 on sex offences and 286 on drug and other anti-social offences). Some of these detainees were coming off prison sentences.

Last year, 48 detainees gave their watchers the slip, including a drug-dealer, violent robbers, burglars and a man who was convicted of raping a minor.

And Power says home detentionis being used to contain the prison population, but at the expense of public safety.

There are also suggestions the monitoring of home detainees is unreliable, with probation officers relying on security firms to do the surveillance. Units that register signals from home detainees' electronic bracelets are placed in their homes and workplace. Beyond these sites, surveillance has to be performed in person, and there aren't the resources to tail each detainee 24/7.

One security expert says: "The equipment that pig hunters use to track their dogs when they're lost is better than what we use."

Goff downplays safety concerns. He says judges have to be satisfied home detainees won't pose a risk to the community, and the absconding rate is low, at less than 3 per cent.

The home detention debate taps a broader sense that the justice system is failing victims. Felix Groenestein can't fault his treatment by police and court workers, but feels "the system itself is rotten".

It's not unusual for victims to feel marginalised and alienated.

"Victims' whole experience can be legalised, sanitised, minimised to the point that they almost start thinking it never happened," says Donna Neill, of Victim Support.

"For some people this can be as damaging as the original crime."

A drive towards a "parallel justice system" revolving around the victim rather than the accused has found some traction with the Government. This year has seen a funding boost for restorative justice, better advice on victims' rights and entitlements promised in the form of a Victims' Charter, a national 0800 phoneline and website for victims, and new victim advocates in family courts.

The Government is also looking into funding reparation.

Currently, victims are often drip-fed reparation payments from offenders over months or years, a distressing reminder of the crime.

Victim Support also wants better promotion of restorative justice, saying it provides a forum for victims to impress on the offender the pain they've inflicted and fosters empathy.

"You've got every right to be angry, hurting," says Neill. "The offender needs to know that.

"A court environment is quite sterile and can depersonalise and add to that hurt. Some people want to eyeball the person, really get it out.

"People need a chance to be heard. A lot of frustration comes out of feeling you're not involved, you're just the silly mug that something's happened to."

Home detention - how it works:

The detainee must live at an approved address. A probation officer will decide if the address is suitable - for example, a party house would be unsuitable for people ordered to seek drug and alcohol treatment. Remote addresses may be ruled out because they're too difficult to monitor.

Other occupants of the address must consent to the detainee living there.

The detainee must remain at their address at all times unless an approved absence is granted by the probation officer.

The detainee must wear an electronic bracelet. Signal transmitters are placed in his or her home and sometimes workplace, but monitoring of the detainees' movements further afield generally relies on probation officers and detainees estimating how long permitted activities should take. Security firms are sometimes used for on-the-ground surveillance.

In the first phase, which usually lasts a month, absence is generally only granted to go to a job, medical or rehabilitation appointments, plus one hour of shopping if living alone.

If the detainee complies, later on absence may be granted for activities such as four hours per month of recreation.

Breaches of conditions, such as an unexplained absence, can result in the detainee losing privileges or imprisonment.

There is no substance-testing to ensure detainees aren't breaking alcohol/drug conditions.

- Herald on Sunday

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