Editorial: Gotingco case shows we've learned little

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Tony Robertson. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Tony Robertson. Photo / Jason Oxenham

It is often said in favour of prisoner rehabilitation programmes that every offender has to be released eventually. That's not quite true.

The law allows those sentenced to "preventive detention" to be kept in custody indefinitely if they are assessed to be a continuing danger to society.

The family of Blessie Gotingco reasonably wonder why her killer, Tony Robertson, was released five months before he raped and murdered her on May 24, 2014. A year later, they saw him sentenced to preventive detention, on top of a life term with a minimum 24 years before parole can be considered. That should be enough to keep the community safe from him in future, but questions remain as to why it took a woman's death to prove he should never have been released - and if he had to be released, could he not have been kept under closer supervision?

The Gotingco family have waited a further year for answers to those questions. The answers are offered in a report commissioned by the Government from the Acting Secretary for Justice, Mel Smith.

The information it provides on Robertson's character and attitude in prison makes those questions more pertinent. Robertson, now 29, has a criminal record that began when he was 16. His convictions include assault, aggravated robbery, possessing an offensive weapon and threatening to kill. At age 18, he committed offences much worse: abducting and committing indecencies on a child and attempting to kidnap two other children. He was sent to jail for eight years.

The sentencing judge called the offences "more sinister" than Robertson's previous crimes and noted the youth was "in complete denial" of his behaviour. "That may change if you are given time to reflect and accept help," the judge said. But he was sufficiently doubtful of that prospect to add that an extended supervision order might be needed on Robertson's release.

The Smith report records Robertson's application for parole after serving two-thirds of the sentence was turned down three times. He made it clear he did not accept guilt for what he had done and did not consider he needed the rehabilitative programmes offered to him. He was often in trouble and remained a high-security prisoner. Having served his full sentence, he was released in December 2013, with special conditions imposed for six months. In February, the High Court at Auckland made the extended supervision order to take effect when the special conditions expired. Before the order took effect, he had murdered Mrs Gotingco.

Mr Smith says, "Almost a third of all long-serving prisoners released each year in New Zealand serve their full sentence. This equates to about 460 prisoners a year and in general they are at high risk of reoffending as well as a high risk to public safety." The tone of this report, and the ministers receiving it, is too resigned. The law must find a better way to satisfy civil liberties and public safety. Every time this happens, the public hopes the authorities are indeed wise in hindsight, then it happens again. There is no case for dangerous people to be back on the streets.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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