Justice Minister Andrew Little's backdown on the "three strikes" law demonstrates once again that this is very much a coalition Government. Attempting to make the best of the egg on his face, Little said, "The strength of this coalition is that change only occurs with the support of all three parties." Considering the gulf that divides New Zealand First from Labour and the Greens on most issues but particularly those involving crime and punishment, not much is likely to change.

Criminology scholars and penal reformers have made a sustained effort since the change of Government to lower the country's incarceration rate and provide alternatives to prison rather than build more of them. The Government is planning a thorough review of the criminal justice system and the minister clearly thought the three strikes law, an Act Party initiative in the previous Government, was low-hanging fruit. He was preparing to take a repeal proposal to the Cabinet yesterday without waiting for the wider review.

Perhaps he did not think to check that NZ First was on board before he made his intention public, or perhaps he did and the smaller party has just woken up to the political risk the coalition was running. The open letter published by the Sensible Sentencing Trust yesterday probably sent a chill through NZ First. Like the trust, the populist party prides itself on preferring the untutored views of ordinary folk to those of academics and gentler advocates in the field.

The trust has long argued that mandatory sentencing under the three-strikes rule has worked, pointing to a reduced rate of (second-strike) reoffending coming before the courts after 2010 when the law came into effect. Conviction figures for the five years before and after 2010 appear to support that conclusion but the Ministry of Justice says the reduction in second convictions could be attributable to other changes in law and prosecuting practices during those years.

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Whatever the reason for the drop, "three strikes" has obvious popular appeal. It means that for crimes in the worst categories, a second offence allows no parole on the sentence imposed, and a third offence in those categories must be punished with the maximum sentence for the crime and no parole will be possible. It appeals to the popular view that a prison sentence should mean what it says, and not release offenders after serving barely two-thirds of their time.

But a sensible sentencing policy does not take so much discretion away from judges. Every crime is different and so are those who commit them. Judges are in the best position to assess each person found guilty in their court, and professionals within prisons are in the best position to say when a prisoner might respond well to parole. It is simply foolish to foreclose the possibility of providing that opportunity for the sake of vindictive punishment. It is in everybody's interest that prison be able to change offenders' lives for the better.

No Government, including the last one, wants to be building more prisons. Labour needs to keep its nerve on criminal law reform, not pander to its junior partner when the politics get hard.