Close to a hundred thousand community service hours have been wiped due to Covid-19, even as the Government scaled back pandemic restrictions.
Newstalk ZB can reveal in the year to August, 81,000 hours had been remitted under the now-expired Epidemic Preparedness Notice.
That notice, in place from March 2020 until last week, was used to clear community service hours, with restrictions making it difficult for sentences to be completed.
Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis maintains the majority of sentences with remitted community hours were for minor offending, such as traffic offences and the non-payment of fines.
“These are people whose offences are very low level.”
“We aren’t talking about hardened criminals. We aren’t talking about dangerous people,” he said.
But National says while it made sense during the height of the pandemic, every other hour struck off “is proof that the Government’s soft on crime”.
“I agree that it’s the lower end of offending, but offending has still happened,” said corrections spokesman Simon O’Connor.
Community sentences are unpaid, and people can be sentenced to between 40 and 400 hours of work as a court-ordered punishment for offending.
In response to written questions from National, Davis revealed 81,924.5 community work hours had been wiped under the Epidemic Preparedness Notice between January and August this year.
That equates to 8,080 offenders, most of which were based in either central or southern regions. Over 2020 and 2021, 88,317.25 hours were remitted.
The most community service hours erased during 2022 came in March, when the monthly total hit more than 31,000 hours.
Speaking to Newstalk ZB, Davis said that’s “only an average of three hours per week, per offender in the community ... or twelve hours for the month”.
“We need to keep it all in perspective.”
“You’ve got to remember the circumstances at the time, we were in the middle of the Omicron outbreak, [and] we had concerns about people in close association with each other,” he said.
New Zealand moved to the Covid-19 traffic light system in December last year.
When the Omicron wave took hold in January, the country shifted to red, which involved mandatory face coverings in many public settings, as well as 100-person gathering limits.
After a number of tweaks to the red setting, including larger gathering limits and the end of contact tracing for businesses, New Zealand moved to orange in April, with a greater focus on vaccine requirements and mask-wearing.
Corrections’ Darius Fagan, general manager for case management and probation, said until mid-2022 a number of restrictions were put in place for community work, with “either reduced numbers in attendance or sites shut down for this period”.
“Decisions on remitting hours were made on a case-by-case basis ... only people who had been compliant with their community work had hours remitted”, he said.
In line with the Sentencing Act, no more than eight hours in any week, and no more than the lesser of 48 hours in total, or one-third of the imposed sentence, can be remitted.
“Community work sentences have now resumed across the country,” Fagan said.
Davis explained the rationale for why community service hours were being removed in the first place.
“These are people who were looking to make amends for whatever they had done ... because of circumstances well out of their control, they couldn’t do their hours.”
But National corrections spokesman Simon O’Connor said “there’s no reasonable explanation” for wiping hours this year.
He claimed the Government’s used “the Epidemic Preparedness Notice no longer to manage Covid, but to manage failings of the Corrections department”.
“The old adage was do the crime, do the time, but under Labour it seems there are no consequences,” he said.
Davis hit back, putting the criticism down to party politics.
“Yeah, well, that’s National. That’s the sort of thing they’ll say in Opposition.
“The reality is they’d have the same advice in Government that I received.”