The number of gang-affiliated offenders sentenced to home detention has increased by nearly 60 per cent in six years, according to Department of Corrections data.
The National Party says the rise is concerning from a “public safety” perspective and believes its policy of making gang membership an aggravating factor at sentencing will make it more likely they will spend time in prison, rather than home detention.
Labour says National’s policy “just tinkers with the status quo”, and the party is “dangerously straying into the territory of disregarding” constitutional arrangements.
Answers to Written Parliamentary Questions from National’s Justice spokesperson Paul Goldsmith regarding the number of people who were sentenced to home detention and were identified to be gang-affiliated each financial year since 2017/18 reveal a 59 per cent increase, with 623 people with gang affiliations being sentenced to home detention in the 2022/23 financial year.
The figures, provided to the Herald, do not include a breakdown of what offences each person was sentenced for.
Home detention can only be granted by a judge and is used as an alternative to imprisonment. It is intended for offenders who would receive a jail term of two years or less.
“It requires an offender to remain at a suitable and approved residence at all times and be monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“Offenders on home detention must also complete programmes designed to address the causes of their offending.”
Between 2017 to 2022 the number of people being sentenced to home detention overall decreased by 15 per cent, according to Ministry of Justice figures.
The increase in gang affiliates being sentenced to home detention coincides with a 61 per cent increase in the gang population in New Zealand since 2017.
Goldsmith told the Herald the increase in gang-affiliated people being sentenced to home detention was “concerning”. He also cited a 33 per cent increase in violent crime during the same period.
“Ultimately our concern is for public safety and as we’ve seen in recent cases home detention doesn’t necessarily mean being at home all the time, it can, well, mean going off to work, and for certain people that may well be appropriate ... there are certain circumstances, particularly for non-violent crimes or for ones that don’t involve serious violence that may make sense, but what we worry about is when it extends to those more serious crimes and gang activity.
“Our particular concern around gang activity is for the overwhelmingly negative impact that they have on our communities.”
He believed National’s policy of making gang membership an aggravating factor at sentencing, and limiting judges’ ability to reduce sentences, with a maximum discount of 40 per cent, would reduce the likelihood that sentences were downgraded from imprisonment to home detention for gang members.
“There will be circumstances where [home detention] is appropriate but what I would point to is the significant increase in violent crime over the same period, a significant increase in gang membership over the same period, and at the same time we’re seeing more gang members on home detention and all those things don’t add up to me.”
In response, Justice Minister Ginny Andersen said National’s policy on making gang membership automatically an aggravating factor at sentencing “just tinkers with the status quo”.
“Which as it stands means being in a gang or an organised crime group is already an aggravated factor at sentencing.”
She cited the sentencing of Mongrel Mob president Turanganui John Ormsby-Turner in March for murder as being an example of connections to organised crime being considered as an aggravating factor.
“Their other policy around limiting judges’ ability to reduce sentences has been panned by experts as unworkable and was clearly poorly thought out,” she said.
“If National are serious about gangs, they should consider putting up some evidence-based policies that actually work, such as the Government’s gang legislation brought in this year, which has already been used twice by police to crack down on gangs when they are in conflict.”
Andersen, who is also Police Minister, said statistics showed the number of people who had been sentenced to home detention had remained “relatively stable” since 2013.
“The decision to sentence someone to home detention is one made by a judge, not the Government. National are dangerously straying into the territory of disregarding this part of our constitutional arrangements.”
The figures come after a string of high-profile cases where gang members or affiliates were sentenced to home detention.
Last month, 17-year-old Tana Ormsby-Turner, a Mongrel Mob prospect involved in a gang-related murder, was sentenced to 12 months of home detention after Justice Francis Cooke began with a starting point of seven years’ imprisonment and applied around 70 per cent in discounts.
In June, Kane Ronaki, the nephew of the Mongols MC gang’s vice president, was sentenced to home detention after he was found guilty following the Operation Silk trial of two firearms charges - including one loaded shotgun - and one charge of possessing explosives - the five shotgun shells in the shotgun.
In October last year, William Nelson-Bell, a Killer Beez gang member who took part in four South Auckland drive-by shootings on his 18th birthday, was sentenced to a year of home detention.
In June last year, police launched Operation Cobalt - a nationwide crackdown on gangs - following a spike in intimidating behaviour and violence by gangs, particularly the drive-by shootings between the Killer Beez and Tribesmen in Auckland in the first half of 2022.
Operation Cobalt included a specialist ring-fenced team of 40 staff in Auckland.
Last week, National’s police spokesperson Mark Mitchell received a barrage of criticism from Andersen for claiming that half of 41,000 charges laid through Operation Cobalt were “minor offences”, despite those charges potentially including burglary, theft, drink-driving and breaches of bail.
Mitchell told the Herald he did not think offences including burglary were minor, but said he could only work with the data the Government supplied which only referenced offence categories and not a breakdown by charge.
Andersen said it was “frankly appalling” to undermine the efforts of police officers working to limit the harmful reach of gangs.
“I want Mark to step up and explain to the police frontline why he has a problem with them arresting gang members for burglary and theft.
“And I want him to explain why he doesn’t think that reckless driving that endangers lives is more than ‘minor’.”
Sam Sherwood is a Christchurch-based reporter who covers crime. He is a senior journalist who joined the Herald in 2022, and has worked as a journalist for 10 years.