Politics

Govt mulls law change after prisoner letter fiasco

After the alleged Christchurch mosque attacker was allowed to write to a far-right supporter from prison, Jacinda Ardern says our laws may have to change to reflect the digital age.

The Government is eyeing law changes after the alleged Christchurch mosque attacker was able to exchange letters with a far-right supporter from his prison cell, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern saying current legislation does not reflect the digital age we live in.

Last week, Newsroom revealed that a letter from Christchurch terror accused Brenton Tarrant had been shared on the far-right message board 4chan, with a closing line that could be interpreted as an effort at recruitment.

The Department of Corrections confessed Tarrant's letter should not have been allowed to leave the prison, and put an interim ban in place while it beefed up its vetting procedures for checking the correspondence of prisoners with extremist ideologies or registered victims.

Now, the Government is considering whether the Corrections Act needs to be updated to better account for the proliferation of extremist content online.

Speaking at her weekly post-Cabinet press conference, Ardern said Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis had briefed ministers on the work that officials had been undertaking on possible law changes before Tarrant’s letter was made public.

The 15-year-old legislation was designed to protect individual members of the public from prisoners, rather than wider groups of people who could be targeted by hate speech.

“We live in a digital age, we live in an age where people like the alleged offender in the Christchurch case sought notoriety and that means trying to publish beyond just an individual who a letter may be sent to, and we need to make sure the legislation captures that sort of grotesque behaviour.”

“If you look at the current legislation, it is drafted very much in the mind with the idea of a prisoner writing directly to a recipient and the impact on that recipient.

“We live in a digital age, we live in an age where people like the alleged offender in the Christchurch case sought notoriety and that means trying to publish beyond just an individual who a letter may be sent to, and we need to make sure the legislation captures that sort of grotesque behaviour.”

While the letter should not have been sent under the current law, Ardern said change could be useful to provide greater clarity for Corrections while also protecting the department from any legal challenges made by inmates.

With any changes, the Government would apply “what people would really see as a common sense test, and so if you would fall foul of the law by broadcasting something online for instance, then you would expect that same kind of threshold to apply for mail coming out of the prison system”.

Ardern said some policy options would go before a Cabinet committee within the next fortnight, and it was possible that a final recommendation could go before the entire Cabinet within that time frame.

'Clear deflection from criticism'

However, National leader Simon Bridges questioned the need for any change, suggesting the announcement by Ardern was “a clear deflection from criticism”.

“They want to look like they are doing something when law change is not required - all that is required is for Kelvin Davis and Corrections to stop being asleep at the wheel and to competently do their job.”

Bridges said questions had to be asked about whether Davis had involved himself sufficiently in discussions about Tarrant’s management in prison, given it was “a special unique case that required serious overseeing”.

Ardern’s announcement came after Corrections chief executive Christine Stevenson announced her department had set up a phone number and email address to hear from any people who received “harmful” and unwanted letters from prisoners.

With 15,000 pieces of mail leaving prisons each week, Stevenson said it was possible that letters “may slip out that we are not aware of”.

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