Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Political Roundup: Injustice in the justice system?

The justice and policing system has come under tough scrutiny this week, with questions about its fairness, especially in terms of racial bias.
Nikolas James Posa Delegat is sentenced in the Dunedin District Court. Photo / Otago Daily Times
Nikolas James Posa Delegat is sentenced in the Dunedin District Court. Photo / Otago Daily Times

Allegations of racism continue to characterise political debate at the moment.

The main race-based story this week has been the conviction and sentencing of the son of the multi-millionaire Delegat wine company family.

The scrutiny he faced indicated the extent of the heightened awareness of race and class inequalities in society.

The media ran a huge number of stories reflecting the public's scepticism about whether the sentence handed out to Nikolas Delegat was influenced by his background.

Richlister justice - rich white privilege?

Possibly the strongest coverage was TV3's four-minute Story item by Dale Owens - watch: Did Nikolas Delegat's punishment fit his crime?. See also Owen's story, Why was Delegat's sentence so much lighter than Maikuku's?

What's been interesting about the accusations of privilege, is that they've come from some surprising sources. After all, it was Police Association president Greg O'Connor who really kicked off the debate, when he went public with his concerns: "Had we been talking about a young Polynesian man from south Dunedin, then I'm sure we would have been talking whether it was 12 months or six months, or maybe even longer" - see Dan Satherley's Delegat's light sentence down to wealth and skin colour - Police Association. O'Connor alleges that "big city lawyers" bullied the judge to keep Delegat out of jail.

Rightwing blogger David Farrar has commented: "I'm not exactly a social justice warrior but if Delegat was say a young Pacific Islander in South Aucklander who had punched a cop unconscious and then kept punching her, I'd say he'd probably be serving a significant jail term" - see: Would he have got community service if he was a South Aucklander?

Similarly, Waikato University's Leonie Pihama said it was about power: "You have a combination here of race and class. So you have a wealth privilege that enables an ability to have a particular kind of defence, enables an ability to advocate that this is a one-off and this is really a good person" - see RNZ's Delegat's sentence about 'race and class'.

But was the judge's sentence really out of line with what others receive? No, according to various lawyers. For example, Queens Counsel lawyer John Billington says "What you are talking about here is somebody who has no previous record... It doesn't matter what socio-economic group they come from. You get a first offender on that charge, with a clear record, then the outcome is going to be very similar... The court was bound to impose the least restrictive sentence and it's certainly not going to send someone to prison in those circumstances on that charge" - see Campbell Gibson's Nikolas Delegat sentencing fair, QC says.

Similarly, Dunedin criminal barrister Anne Stevens said the allegations of injustice were "'outrageous'', and that in her 29-years of experience the sentence was ''entirely consistent'' - see Shawn McAvinue's Claim Delegat got rich person's justice disputed. She is quoted as saying "'It's nothing to do with his parents' wealth, it's nothing to do with the colour of his skin; it's to do with his culpability and his character.''

See also the Herald's Rich-lister's son got a fair sentence, Law Society says. In this, Steve Bonnar QC of the Law Society says the sentence for Delegat appears fair, but criticisms of it are not: "Criticism of Judge [Kevin] Phillips is not fair. His decision on whether to discharge Mr Delegat without conviction is freely available online and it shows all the factors which the Judge considered: the gravity of the charges, the viewpoints of the victims, the impact of a conviction, and the guidelines laid down by our appellate courts which must be followed. These were then reflected in the sentences."

As to whether Delegat indeed got off lightly, some point to the massive amounts of negative publicity he has received, which wouldn't have occurred if he wasn't from a rich background. According to Newshub's Chris Holden, the public debate had "handed him a life sentence, which means he will never be able to hide from his actions. Now, when he goes to apply for a job, employers will search his name in Google and discover his horrendous actions" - see: Money didn't buy Nikolas Delegat freedom - it earned him an inescapable life sentence.

The Herald newspaper says the public scrutiny has been useful, but ultimately justice appears to have been served, and the judicial system shown to be working - see: Delegat case - system must resist rush to judgment.

Racism in the legal system and police?

There is no doubt that questions about racial and economic inequality in the justice system will linger. After all, nearly 70 percent of the country's prison population is made up of Maori and Pacific people. The statistics for reoffending rates are also worst for Maori, leading some to question whether the Corrections Department has adequate rehabilitation strategies for Maori - see the Herald's Tribunal case holds hope on critical issue.

And last year Police Commissioner Mike Bush admitted that there is an unconscious bias within the police. Hence the police are going to great lengths to show how culturally sensitive they are - see RNZ's NZ police work to bridge cultural divides. See also the news report that police are able to wear "articles of faith" such as turbans - see Chloe Winter's Police and banks considering adding hijab to official uniform.

But doubts remain about how fairly police deal with different ethnicities, with a report out yesterday from the Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) which shows that warnings are more likely to be given to non-Maori offenders - see Newswire's Police give Māori fewer pre-charge warnings - IPCA.

Police Commissioner Mike Bush went on the Paul Henry Show this morning to explain the situation - see the five-minute interview: Non-Maori more likely to avoid charges, but police 'absolutely not' racist. His rationale was, "A big part of the discrepancy that still exists is that Māori offenders are more likely to have previous convictions, making it harder for police to make the call not to press charges."

There are other signs this week of major discrepancies in the system - see Jordan Bond's Maori imprisoned at twice rate of Europeans for same crime. According to Labour's Kelvin Davis, this shows that there's an unconscious bias "right throughout the judicial system". Of particular interest in the article, sociologist Greg Newbold is quoted saying that "I don't think the courts are racially biased, I think they've got a strong class bias." He explains that more work needs to be done to investigate the data, but that ethnicity is not likely to be factor once the research controls for "a number of factors, including prior criminal history, likelihood of reoffending, gang or organised crime connections and employment status".

Finally, the Richlister justice issue raises lots of serious questions about race, class and power, and Raybon Kan rises to the challenge today - see: Lawyer takes the prize for Delegat misdeed.

- NZ Herald

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