Isaac Davison is a NZ Herald political reporter.

Judith Collins rejects judge's comments

It is not government policy to steer people away from prison if they should be in prison: Corrections Minister
District Court Judge Allan Roberts and Justice Minister Judith Collins. Photo by: John Stone and Doug Sherring
District Court Judge Allan Roberts and Justice Minister Judith Collins. Photo by: John Stone and Doug Sherring

Corrections Minister Judith Collins has strongly rejected a judge's claim that the Government is trying to keep offenders out of jail.

Ms Collins said the comments by New Plymouth District Court Judge Allan Roberts were incorrect "for a range of reasons" and that neither the Government nor Parliament was directing probation officers to recommend penalties other than prison sentences.

On Friday, Justice Roberts sentenced 26-year-old Joshua Aaron Salvador Edwards to jail for breaching a sentence of community work, driving while disqualified and failing to stop. His probation officer's report had recommended community detention.

The Taranaki Daily News reported that in sentencing Edwards, the judge said there was a "government direction" to probation officers to recommend non-prison sentences.

"They wish to see the courts make greater use of sentences other than imprisonment," Mr Roberts reportedly said.

"That's why we are getting reports that sometimes don't have an appropriate penalty alongside them. They underpitch, deliberately so."

Ms Collins flatly rejected his comments yesterday. "I checked it with Corrections and I have been assured there is no such directive whatsoever, and it's the judge who is incorrect."

Asked why he would make the comments, she said: "I'm not quite sure why the judge said that ... It would be wrong for a whole range of reasons. It is not government policy to steer people away from prison if they should be in prison. And it's not for us to do that. It's actually up to the judges."

She said Parliament's only role was to set sentencing laws and the parameters around sentencing.

Justice Roberts is a long-serving, outspoken judge who is set to retire in a few weeks.

Edwards' lawyer Megan Boyd did not want to comment on the judge's comments. But she said Edwards' probation officer justified their report by saying reoffending was known to be higher among people who went to prison compared with those who served community sentences.

The Corrections Department's acting operations director for the Lower North Region, Coralea Easther, said probation officers' reports took into account a number of considerations, and their primary focus was on public safety.

Mr Roberts could not be reached yesterday. A spokeswoman for Chief District Court Judge Jan Doogue declined to comment.

The National-led Government has increasingly looked to more rehabilitative measures since Finance Minister Bill English described prisons as a "moral and fiscal failure" in 2011. Despite this focus, the prison muster reached a high in November last year, defying Ministry of Justice forecasts.

Ms Collins allocated $15 million extra funding to Corrections in December to help it cope.

- NZ Herald

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