Thursday, December 4, 2008

Sensible Sentencing? How about honest reporting?

"Life means life", "Outrage because criminal released early" and similar headlines are the stock in trade of the news media in New Zealand, and it's a complete croc.

In the New Zealand penal system, convicted criminals are eligible for parole after completing a relatively small percentage of their sentence. I'm not 100% sure, but I believe for "minor" crimes (not that anyone is actually imprisoned for truly minor crimes) parole is pretty much automatic.

When a judge sentences a person to 5 years jail, it is in the full knowledge that they will be released in 18 months or 2 years, but the NZ Herald and other parts of the increasingly yellow New Zealand press insist on reporting just the headline sentence ... presumably because it sells more papers. Then when the person gets out "early" they pretend they never knew that the so called 5 year sentence was really only 2.

Working hand in glove with the yellow press are media creations like the "Sensible Sentencing Trust" - I'm not saying that these aren't genuine groups, but without the constant press publicity, they would vanish into obscurity. Just like the yellow Herald they affect surprise when a criminal is released and the news media repeats their words. None of these people are particularly stupid and it is inconceivable that they don't understand that the system is working exactly as the politicians intended.

When they say "If the judge who heard the case decided 5 years jail it should mean 5 years" they are ignoring the fact that the judge assigned 5 years in the full knowledge that the sentence would really only be two. Judges aren't stupid, and judges are required to know the law, so the judge was fully aware of the parole laws and took them into account when determining the sentence

Much as I hate to admit that their corrupt, politically manipulated, legal system does anything better than we do, this is one thing we should learn from the Americans. When a judge over there gives out that same 5 year sentence, it will be described as 2 to 5 years, and it will be reported in the press that way. Over there there is no public expectation that the person will actually serve more than 2 years. What there is is outrage when a serious criminal is sentenced to a short prison term, the judges listen to the public and adjust the real sentences accordingly. With the poor reportage here, that isn't likely to happen.

But wait, there's less.

There's another scam the press work on the public. How often do you see headlines like "Professional burglar gets 21 years prison" then when you read the article you see they got 1 year for this and 2 for that in a long list; finally there's an obscure phrase "the sentences are concurrent". That phrase says that the criminal has probably only received 5 or 6 months jail! How it works is that all these sentences are served at the same time (concurrently). This means that the effective sentence is not the sum of the sentences, but the longest single one. In theory concurrent sentencing is a good idea, if the criminal with a suspended license steals a car and drives through a stop sign, they have committed 3 offenses in only one action, so the theory says that they should receive a single penalty; presumably adjusted to allow for the multiple crimes.

Where the system breaks down comes in two parts. Firstly the press consistently misreports these sentences, the headline sentence should be the longest single sentence (and it should be the non parole period) ... imagine the public reaction if instead of saying "Criminal gets 21 years prison" they honestly reported the sentence "6 months prison for 21 burglaries" people would start asking "Why?"

The second breakage comes from the consistent misuse of the system. It's fair enough that one car theft gets one sentence, but what happens instead is a career criminal burgles a house a week for 2 years before the police arrests him. That isn't one criminal act that happens to break 3 laws, that's 108 separate crimes! The rules on concurrent sentencing should be changed so each burglary receives its own sentence and the sentences run consecutively!


Groups like the "Sensible Sentencing Trust" need to stop playing the media's dishonest game and start pressing for the public to be honestly informed about what is really happening in the courts. I'm sure an informed populace would start demanding sentences that actually fit the crime.

I believe in rehabilitation and forgiveness and as I can't agree with their hard-line "throw away the key" attitude to crime, I'd rather it wasn't the current "Sensible Sentencing Trust" but a replacement organisation that was set up to agitate for honest and appropriate sentences for crime, but right now they are all we've got.

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