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The country's top judge has been told to stay out of politics and concentrate on administering the law, after publicly criticising the prison system.

Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias predicted she would be reprimanded when she floated the idea of releasing prisoners early to relieve overcrowding, and suggested punitive sentencing was often not the best option for reform.

And the response came swiftly yesterday, with the Government ruling out the granting of "executive amnesties" and criticising Dame Sian for speaking publicly on policy matters.

Justice Minister Simon Power said he was "very surprised" by her public stand when the Government had refrained from commenting on Court of Appeal decisions to reduce sentences.

Dame Sian's suggestions were not on the political agenda and it was not her place to put them there, Mr Power said.

In a speech made in Wellington last week but not made public until Tuesday, Dame Sian said she believed releasing prisoners early from the country's overcrowded "monster factories" would free up beds and decrease the chances of reoffending.

She said the longer the sentence, the less likely the chances of reform, and that a shift in public attitude to community-based sentencing was required.

But her comments did not go down well with Mr Power.

"It is the judiciary's job to apply the law as set by Parliament," he said. "This Government was elected on this sentencing policy. Judges are appointed to apply it.

"The Chief Justice's speech does not represent Government policy in any way, shape or form."

Mr Power was given no warning of Dame Sian's speech and would not say if a meeting was on the cards as a result.

The Chief Justice's comments were made at a New Zealand Law Society women-in-law committee meeting in Wellington.

Dame Sian said the public needed to understand that punitive sentencing was often not the best option for reform.

"The problem with incarceration is that in all but a small number of cases at some point the offender must re-enter society," she said in her speech, quoting a former Lord Chief Justice of England, Lord Bingham.

A study of 5000 prisoners released in 2002/2003 showed 52 per cent were back behind bars within 60 months, Dame Sian said.

Meanwhile, the Sensible Sentencing Trust has criticised the "executive amnesty" suggestion as a "total cop-out".

Trust spokesman Garth McVicar said such a move would dilute the deterrent effect of prisons and was unfair to victims of crime.

"I think [Dame Sian] is totally on the wrong track ... talking about how people have choices and how they choose to commit crime or they don't and why are so many people choosing to commit crime in this country."

But the Chief Justice said there was too great a focus on victims of crime in our judicial system.

"Perhaps direct assistance to victims may be of more help than a sense of ownership of the criminal justice processes," Dame Sian said.

She supported British criminologist David Garland's view that the "introduction of the victim's voice" had caused a "re-personalisation" of criminal justice.

It "recasts sentencing not as a finding of law, but as an expression of loyalty", she said.

Sentences had become a mark of "personal respect" to the victim and "cool impartial justice [was] not getting very good press these days".

Dame Sian said the emotional and financial cost of involving victims in the entire judicial process needed to be assessed.

She said that throughout her 40-year career in criminal justice, optimism about reform strategies had given way to "professional pessimism and community loss of confidence in those working in the criminal justice sector".

Research shows the effect of imprisonment on crime levels is small.

This would reduce the prison population and allow for more community-based sanctions.

A greater focus on mental ill-health and substance abuse within prison and the community is needed.

More funding/resourcing is needed to support probation officers so offenders can be monitored more closely.

The public must understand the benefits of community-based sentencing and accept risk cannot be eliminated.

Some inmates should be released to community-based sentences to free up overcrowded prisons and encourage effective reform.

Members of the public could be involved in advising, assisting and befriending inmates.