Getting tough on crime is always a good ploy as a general election looms. If the policy underpinning that crackdown is easily understood by those who hanker for a magic bullet, so much the better. The Act Party's plan to extend the three-strikes law for violent crime to burglary will, therefore, be welcomed by some. But it shares the shortcomings which should have ensured that legislation was never introduced.
Introducing the policy, Act's leader, Jamie Whyte, made much of the commonplace nature of burglary. More than 2000 families would have returned from the Easter break to find they had been burgled, he said. "With a 15 per cent apprehension rate and such absurdly soft sentencing, burglary is a low-risk, high-reward enterprise."
Act's plan would mean that burglars would spend at least three years in prison if convicted of the crime a third time. This, said Mr Whyte, would reduce burglary rates by deterring people from committing crime and by incapacitating burglars who were not deterred by holding them in prison.
Its effect could, he suggested, be judged by what had happened under the three-strikes law for violent crime, also Act policy. This requires judges to sentence offenders who commit a third violent crime to the maximum sentence without parole. About 4000 New Zealanders are on a first strike, 32 on a second strike, and no one has been convicted of a third-strike offence. But that gives no definitive judgment on the three-strikes approach. The policy was introduced only four years ago. Given the typical sentences for violent crime, its effect will not be known until 2020 or 2025.
What is known is that the burglary rate has been falling steadily over the past few years after the police made it a priority. A particular focus has been repeat offenders and location. The latest police statistics, for the year to last June, showed that nationally, burglaries were down 10.1 per cent on the previous 12 months. The Waitemata district had 23.7 per cent fewer burglaries, and Auckland City's fell by 22.8 per cent, a situation attributed to a Prevention First strategy and officers being issued with smartphones and tablets.
Clearly, the police approach is already proving to be a considerable deterrent.
There are other more fundamental flaws in Act's policy. One is the way in which judges are relieved of sentencing discretion. They must impose a punishment prescribed by Parliament, rather than being able to decide that, given the circumstances, an offender deserves a sentence with a rehabilitative incentive.
This inflexibility would be particularly apposite in assessing burglaries carried out over many years, as opposed to one spree. It would also create a disproportionately severe punishment for a third extremely minor burglary. While the intent to steal may still have been there, the sentence, as with the third strike for a relatively moderate violent crime, would be out of proportion to the offence.
Mr Whyte says Act's policy is modelled on one introduced in England and Wales in 1999, and that any increase in the prison population would be "moderate". This should be seen in context. Fifteen years ago, the major British political parties were striving to respond to public pressure for more and longer prison sentences. The outcome of such policies was the spending of billions of pounds on new jails. Finally, it was recognised that such expenditure was misguided, and that more attention should be paid to rehabilitation and crime prevention.
New Zealand should not have to go further down the path advocated by Act before it learns the same lesson.