Anna Leask is senior police reporter for the New Zealand Herald.

Paedophile teacher - why judge set a short parole time

Sentence upset many, but explanation satisfies families of abuse victims

James Parker in the dock as he is sentenced to preventive detention. Photo / NZ Herald
James Parker in the dock as he is sentenced to preventive detention. Photo / NZ Herald

Paedophile teacher James Parker's case was described as the worst of its kind in New Zealand history.

He was given the most severe punishment available to judges, an "indefinite" term of imprisonment, but will be considered for release after seven years.

The sentence has confused many and angered victim advocates, who say the amount of time before Parker is eligible for parole is too short.

But others believe the short period will enable the self-confessed sexual deviant to get treatment earlier than he would have with a longer term.

In the High Court at Whangarei on Thursday, Justice Paul Heath sentenced the 38-year-old to preventive detention with a minimum non-parole period of seven years.

Preventive detention is essentially life in prison, and serves to protect the community by detaining an offender indefinitely.

The offender remains in jail until the Parole Board decides he or she is no longer a risk to the community.

If they are released, they remain on parole for the rest of their life, supervised and monitored.

They can be recalled to prison if they reoffend.

And, if they are never deemed "safe" by the board, they will never be released.

Justice Heath explained his decision during sentencing.

He said he had two options - preventive detention or a finite sentence.

On each he could order a minimum period Parker had to serve before he became eligible for parole.

The maximum finite sentence Justice Heath could have imposed was 20 years, which he would have reduced by 25 per cent to give Parker credit for his early guilty plea.

He said he would have imposed a 10-year non-parole period and ordered that when Parker was released, he must be supervised intensely for a set amount of time.

But that time would have eventually lapsed, meaning there would be no one watching Parker and he could reoffend easily.

Justice Heath decided preventive detention was the most appropriate sentence, meaning Parker will be monitored until the day he dies.

"I consider the appropriate term is one of seven years, which I have fixed with regard to the period I would have imposed if a finite sentence had been given," Justice Heath said in court.

"The lower minimum period is based on my perception that the sooner you become eligible for parole, the sooner you will begin treatment for your disorder.

"I doubt very much whether you would be released on that first opportunity, but it would give the Parole Board an opportunity to become involved at an earlier time to make its own assessment of risk and to ensure that you undergo the correct treatment programmes."

Family members of Parker's victims were confused by the sentence and initially thought he would be released in seven years.

But once they had time to digest what Justice Heath said, they realised how harsh the sentence was.

"Preventive detention is the best we could have hoped for from the law," said one woman.

The admission ...

What Parker instructed his lawyer to tell the court:

He acknowledges the sentence must reflect denunciation for what he has done. He recognises the community feels a strong need to be protected from him. He is fiercely determined and confident he will never allow himself to offend in this way again. The sexual behaviour he had come to normalise to himself must never be repeated. He accepts the victims were vulnerable ... he accepts there was premeditation ... Parker was in a situation where he was able to indulge his sexual desires.

Sensible Sentencing Trust

Ruth Money The non-parole period is completely outrageous and is nowhere near the public's expectation of "justice". Sadly, the term "preventive detention" creates a perception of offender punishment and protection for the public. The reality is very different.

On average, the time spent on preventive detention in New Zealand is only 11 years.
We believe Parker is unlikely to ever be rehabilitated. Even after an investigation and warnings to him in 2009, his offending escalated.

The pitiful non-parole period is further evidence of the bulk discount for repeat offending that the legal system applies.

It incentivises repeat offending as there is limited to no punishment for subsequent offences.

This case called for an unprecedented punishment but the court was more concerned about the offender than his victims and justice.

In only seven years the victims will begin annually presenting in front of the Parole Board, which will certainly revictimise them.

Ruth Money is an Auckland-based spokeswoman for the Sensible Sentencing Trust.

Howard League

Mike Williams This guy needs treating as soon as possible. Preventive detention is exactly the right sentence for him.

There are some people, you lock 'em up and throw away the key - and he is certainly one of them.

I was quite surprised at seven years' non-parole, but the judge's logic was correct.

As I understand it, prisoners can only get treatment when they are about to be released. That is wrong.

The rule is counterproductive. He has said that he understands he needs treatment, and there are people out there who would argue that his problem is treatable. But I don't think so.

The judge made the right decision, but it's really for a perverse reason.

Mike Williams is an advocate for the Howard League for Penal Reform.

- NZ Herald

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