The influence of the Sensible Sentencing Trust appears to be waning with a key member leaving and Justice Minister Andrew Little labelling leading figures as "loopy" and "callous".

Scott Guthrie, a senior figure and spokesman for Sensible Sentencing Trust, told the Herald he had quit the trust believing it had achieved little that made New Zealand safer and that longer prison sentences were not the answer to crime and justice problems.

He has now set up the new Transforming Justice Foundation, saying rehabilitation and finding ways to help prisoners rejoin society without reoffending is the key to cutting crime.

Guthrie and the Foundation are set for a meeting with Minister of Justice Andrew Little in the next fortnight. In contrast, the Sensible Sentencing Trust had one meeting last year and hasn't been seen in the Beehive since.

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The Trust has previously held a pivotal role in crime and justice debates, pushing for longer sentences and more restrictive bail and parole conditions.

In an interview with the Herald, Little said he had not met the group this year.

"I have a problem specifically with Garth McVicar who has a bit of a track record of what I think are some pretty loopy views".

Little said examples which disturbed him included McVicar's support for Bruce Emery who was 50 when he stabbed and killed a 15-year-old he caught tagging. McVicar said Emery should have got home detention, rather than the four years prison to which he was sentenced, and that the boy should not have been allowed to roam at night.

Garth McVicar, founder of the Sensible Sentencing Trust. Photo / Duncan Brown
Garth McVicar, founder of the Sensible Sentencing Trust. Photo / Duncan Brown

"There is no way to justify that position," said Little.

Little also highlighted McVicar's view marriage equality would increase criminal offending.

Most recently, there was McVicar offering police "congratulations" over the shooting of a young man which meant "one less to clog the prisons".

"It completely trivialised the position of police officers in that situation. I thought there's something unhealthy about that set of views that I don't think is helpful to a debate about criminal justice reform."

Little also had concern about a comment on a blog by Sensible Sentencing Trust lawyer David Garrett, the former Act MP.

In the wake of the Herald reporting a spike in suicides in our crowded prison system, Garrett wrote: "No one with half a brain cares if the kind of people featured on this blog under the title 'Meet a second striker' commit suicide in jail… and neither would you, if you cared a fig for their victims."

Little said: "The idea you just callously say it's okay if they commit suicide - that's not a set of values that I want to be anywhere the debate about reforming our criminal justice system."

He said he applauded the work the trust had previously done in raising the profile of victims of crime and he had met with a number of victim advocates to ensure those views were represented.

Guthrie's departure from the Sensible Sentencing Trust comes at a time when the "tough on crime" organisation is trying to maintain relevance as the Government argues for a drop in the prison population.

Scott Guthrie, who has left the Sensible Sentencing Trust to push for greater rehabilitation and reintegration services for prisoners.
Scott Guthrie, who has left the Sensible Sentencing Trust to push for greater rehabilitation and reintegration services for prisoners.

Guthrie told the NZ Herald he had an "amicable" split with the Trust.

"It certainly felt like a big step but I couldn't see the sense in carrying on and getting nowhere quickly.

"It's not easy when you have a board of trustees and committee that says we're going to focus on punishing people harshly."

Guthrie said he was opposed to an advocacy line which insisted on increasingly tougher sentencing.

"It's not working. It's a big shift but it's a shift we need to take."

Guthrie said he believed in prison - "I'm certainly not soft on crime" - but he was fully supportive of Little's aims to reduce the prison population through early intervention, rehabilitation and projects that helped inmates safely return to the community.

He said rising levels of violent and sexual offending should signal the failure of longer sentences and raise questions about the value of current rehabilitation programmes.

He said the trust had done well to raise the profile of victims but increasing violent and sexual crime statistics raised the question as to what it had achieved. The answer, he said, was "not a hell of a lot".

New Zealand's prison population is at capacity - Labour plans to reduce the prison population by 30 per cent in 15 years through wide-ranging reforms.
New Zealand's prison population is at capacity - Labour plans to reduce the prison population by 30 per cent in 15 years through wide-ranging reforms.

Guthrie was backed by former police inspector Tania Baron, who had joined the Transforming Justice Foundation after resigning from police in April.

Baron said reducing the percentage of those who reoffended was key to making New Zealand safer.

"This isn't America. We aren't going to be locking these people up and throwing away the key. These people are going to come out eventually. How do we stop them going back in?

"We need to think about how - if they are going to be released - we can reduce the chance of them offending again. It's victim-focused - if they reoffend, there will be another victim."

National's justice spokesman Mark Mitchell said he would meet with any group that wanted to be involved in the crime and justice debate.

However, he said he did "not support or condone" comments such as those made by McVicar or Garrett.

A former police officer, Mitchell said: "When there's a police shooting, there's a lot of stress on the police officers, families, colleagues and of course on the family of offenders."

McVicar described Garrett's comments as "his personal opinion", saying the minister had "thrown his toys" over failure to have the trust-backed Three Strikes law repealed.

Sensible Sentencing Trust lawyer David Garrett criticised for
Sensible Sentencing Trust lawyer David Garrett criticised for "callous" views on inmate suicides.

He said Little was "pissed-off" at failure to have the trust-backed Three Strikes law changed and was "trying to use my comments on various issues as an excuse [for] not having us at the table".

McVicar said Little "wouldn't want anyone who holds polar opposite views to him at his inappropriately named 'justice summit'".

He said exclusion by Little would not stop the trust as the "well-established voice for victims and the wider public".

McVicar did not respond to questions about how many people or victims the trust represented. Garrett did not respond to requests for comment, other than to say his remarks on suicide were made in his "personal capacity".

In a recent interview with the Herald, McVicar dismissed academic and scientific advice around criminal justice.

He said politicians should ignore research-based evidence and listen instead to public opinion.

The trust's current aims include banning parole, stacking sentences to force longer periods in prison, creating a new offence for burglary while someone is home with a sentence up to 25 years and adding burglary to "three strikes" offending.

The Office of the Prime Minister's Chief Science Adviser released a heavily-researched report in March which said simplistic "tough on crime" dogma from "vocal, professional lobbyists" had led to media and political pickup and a higher prison population.

But instead of making New Zealand safer, the report found prisons were "extremely expensive training grounds for further offending".

Sir Peter Gluckman, whose report on New Zealand's criminal justice system found the high prison population was driven by populism but had failed to make New Zealand safer.
Sir Peter Gluckman, whose report on New Zealand's criminal justice system found the high prison population was driven by populism but had failed to make New Zealand safer.

"We keep imprisoning more people in response to dogma not data, responding to shifting policies and media panics, instead of evidence-based approaches to prevention, intervention, imprisonment and rehabilitation."

Corrections latest annual report showed it put 7197 prisoners through rehabilitation and 6267 people in its reintegration programmes.

In total, Corrections spends $180.9m of its $1.3b funding on reintegration and rehabilitation.