John Roughan

John Roughan is a Weekend Herald columnist

John Roughan: Did we really need to send this faker to jail?

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When Bruce James Dale walked out of prison on Monday his former wife was upset that he had served only a year of a 28-month sentence for insurance fraud.

Dale had done something far more disturbing than fraud. He died, as far as anyone knew.

The bare details have been well reported. He had big debts and a dead marriage. He also had $1.12 million in life insurance that could clear the debts and provide for his estranged wife, Sharon, their two sons and his daughter from a previous marriage.

He'd discussed suicide with Sharon. She'd said, "You wouldn't have the balls." She was half-right.

On November 6, 2002, he withdrew the last few thousand dollars from his account, put a little more than half the money in an envelope for the family, drove his car to Sunset Beach, Port Waikato, and left his dead life there.

It hadn't been a sudden decision. Five months earlier, it turned out, he had applied for an IRD number with a name taken from the grave of a child. He stepped out of his door that day with nothing more than a false identity and $2000 in his pocket.

Imagine how hard that would be. No matter how desperate your predicament there would be some sentimental possessions, some relationships, some achievements, some part of your life's narrative you would want to keep. You couldn't.

A funeral was held at Port Waikato. His children, the daughter aged 11, the boys 7 and 3, wrote letters to him and made little boats to take their messages out to sea. At home the 7-year-old built a grave behind the house and would go there to talk to his father.

To the children he was truly dead and it must have been true for Sharon too, for when she got him legally declared dead in 2004, the insurance paid out.

He didn't know she'd done that. Normally it takes seven years for a missing person to become a recorded death. When he applied for a passport in his real name last year he was caught by a data match, convicted and sent to jail.

Why jail, I wondered at the time for reasons that were confirmed by the Parole Board this week. "We are satisfied you would not be an undue risk if released," it said. "We think further offending to be quite unlikely."

Why do we lock away people who pose no threat to others in a violent sense?

Was he really being punished for insurance fraud, or for the agony he caused those children?

The death of a parent is a great deal worse for a child than common desertion, I imagine, though I suspect we grossly underestimate the trauma of desertion these days. Desertion at least holds the possibility of return.

But that is not yet a possibility for these boys. Dale's parole forbids him making contact with his sons, now 14 and 10, and their mother intends to enforce the order.

"It would be in his best interests to stay away, put it that way," she told the Herald.

Dale's crime was cruel but it could have been worse. He did at least want to provide for the family, however criminally.

And now it appears his contrived death carried an emotional cost to himself. The fact that his ex-wife fears he might contact the kids says something for his attachment to them.

He has been criminally dishonest and has some serious human deficiency to put kids through such grief, but prison? We imprison people for almost any crime in this country because we can think of nothing else that seems sufficiently harsh.

Politicians compete to legislate longer sentences. The vindictive Sensible Sentencing Trust can suggest nothing more sensible.

Costly new prisons have appeared in the Waikato and Northland in recent years and still we hear of overcrowding. Now we're debating the propriety of putting prisoners in converted shipping containers, which sounds fine to me, or making them share cells, which does not.

I wonder how an intelligent school disciplinary code would have dealt with Dale. Two Auckland schools gave us a good lesson recently when their rugby teams had a punch-up.

After an Auckland Rugby Union panel, operating much like criminal justice, imposed kneejerk suspensions, the schools announced their own punishments.

At Kelston Boys High the brawlers would address an assembly to explain their actions were wrong, do eight hours' voluntary work at Waikumete Cemetery and eight hours at the school, attend anger management and mentoring sessions, and sign good behaviour contracts.

Auckland Grammar School gave its offenders counselling and mentoring, made them enrol in a self-improvement course in their own time and do community service in the mid-term break.

Suspension sounds easier, like prison. Justice could be so much more useful if we cared to think about it.

- NZ Herald

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