The Finance Minister has been asked if systemic racism was at play in a jail sentence handed down to a mother who escaped from a Hamilton isolation facility with her children to attend their father's tangi.
Grant Robertson was questioned on Friday on the fairness of the 14-day sentence handed down to the 37-year-old mother compared to no jail time for a Queenstown man's isolation breach booze run.
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Martin James McVicar, 52, was sentenced to 40 hours community service after he escaped from a Hamilton isolation hotel on July 9, to buy alcohol from a nearby liquor shop.
McVicar also spent six days on remand in Spring Hill Corrections Facility.
In contrast, on Thursday, the 37-year-old mother was sentenced to 14 days' jail time by Judge Noel Sainsbury for escaping the Distinction Hotel in Te Rapa on July 24 with her four children aged 18, 17, 16 and 12.
Robertson would not comment directly today on the two sentences' seeming discrepancy, saying the separation of the judicial and executive levels of government made it inappropriate.
"The judiciary operates independently and they make their decisions," Robertson said at today's 1pm Covid-19 press conference.
"Those decisions are there for the public to look at and, no doubt, for some people they will look at these decisions and it may raise questions in their mind.
"As a politician in the middle of a situation where there is still the potential right of appeal for people, I have to be very careful about what I say."
After arriving in New Zealand on July 20 from Brisbane, the mother and her children escaped isolation in an attempt to attend the father's tangi after he suddenly and unexpectedly died.
They were located shortly afterwards and the mother and 18-year-old daughter were both charged with intentionally failing to comply with orders under the Covid-19 Public Health Response Act 2020.
Robertson was questioned several times about the 14-day sentence, with one reporter noting: "We're in a moment when people are critically questioning institutional racism in the justice system.
"As a politician what is your response, not to the sentences, but to the questions that are being raised by voters, people in the community who are saying those two sentences are very different for crimes that look very similar?"
Robertson repeated he had to be very careful on any comment with the possibility of appeals to the sentence.
"The judges in these cases make their judgments based on the facts that are in front of them. It is unwise for politicians to intervene in that - with perhaps one very obvious recent exemption - to comment on those decisions," Robertson said.
"There's always rights of appeal and situations that we don't want to involve ourselves in. Obviously, the rules are outlined very clearly to people about the fact they do need to stay in their managed isolation facilities.
"But I'm simply not in a position to comment on the different circumstances of those cases."
However, Robertson did add that the Government had made a concerted effort to improve the justice system's awareness of cultural factors in rehabilitation.
"More broadly speaking about the justice system as a whole, we've been working very hard while we've been in office, particularly through the works of the likes of Kelvin Davis to make sure we're providing a system that both provides support rehabilitation, integration, etc that is culturally appropriate.
In sentencing the 37-year-old mother, Judge Sainsbury said there was an element of selfishness in the woman's offending; saying putting herself before the protection of the community "did not accord with tikanga", RNZ reported.
He accepted grief had likely clouded the woman's judgment and her negative tests given her a false sense of safety at the time.
However, he handed a sentence of 14 days' imprisonment for the charge; an outcome that provoked shock and emotion from her daughter and other supporters in the public gallery.
One man sitting in the back of the court insisted he could pay a fine, pleading "She's got five kids", before saying "That's shameful" when he left the court.
The woman cried and hugged her daughter and other supporters before being led to the cells from where she would be transported to prison.
The maximum penalty for failing to comply with orders under the Covid-19 Public Health Response Act 2020 is six months' imprisonment or a $4000 fine.