Justice

Questions over drop in prison sentences

A change in sentencing practice, leading to fewer people being sent to prison, has some asking questions about judicial independence. Laura Walters reports

The National Party says a change in sentencing practice that's led to fewer people being sent to prison is off the back of Government signalling.

However, the Government says there have been no discussions with the judiciary in respect to sentencing, and this area was left to judges to operate entirely independently.

The number of convicted people who have been sentenced to imprisonment has dropped under this Government.

In the 2019 financial year, 6891 people convicted of a crime received a custodial sentence as their most serious sentence – that’s 12 percent of all those convicted of a crime.

This is a significant drop from 8140 (13 percent) in 2018 and 8677 the year before. In the years 2006, 2007 and 2010 that number was over 9000.

The Ministry of Justice statistics and data tables information breakdown attributes the drop to a change in sentencing practice.

People who would have received a short prison sentence previously were given non- custodial sentences such as intensive supervision, the ministry report said.

And last year’s revised prison population projections also spoke about a drop in the number of people going to prison, for the same reason.

On Friday, the prison population was 9990, with 6408 of those being sentenced prisoners. Daily numbers fluctuate, but it's significantly lower than the peak of 10,820 last year. However, it's a long way off the Government's 30 percent reduction target.

“The reason why we’re seeing that is the Government’s policies and signals is sending a clear message to our justice sector that they want to see a softening up of custodial sentencing."

This change in sentencing practice, which is seeing fewer people being handed custodial sentences, has some raising concerns about the complete independence of the judiciary, saying it has come about due to Government signalling.

National Party justice spokesperson Mark Mitchell said the drop in the number of custodial sentences was the Government’s doing.

“The reason why we’re seeing that is the Government’s policies and signals is sending a clear message to our justice sector that they want to see a softening up of custodial sentencing.

“We, of course, think that’s a very poor signal to send, because you inevitably are going to end up transferring risk back into the community, because you’re continuously continuing to lower the bar in terms of the threshold to be crossed to have a custodial sentence,” he said, adding that it was already very hard to be sent to prison in New Zealand.

Mitchell said of course the system was set up with complete judicial independence, and needed to be in order to maintain integrity.

“But we’re all only human, and I think even judges may respond to signals that have been sent by the Government.”

Justice Minister Andrew Little pushed back on any suggestion Government signalling had influenced judges' sentencing decisions.

"Sentencing is entirely the preserve of judges; it's not ministers or Government. 

"We haven't changed a single law in relation to criminal justice or sentencing, so this is a matter for judges."

Little said he had not discussed the changes in sentencing practice with the judiciary, and there had been no detailed analysis of why there had been a change in this area.

However, there had been greater support given to those remanded on bail, meaning people had been behaving themselves, so when they came to be sentenced they had a better chance of receiving a non-custodial sentence.

This change in practice comes as the coalition Government works to drop the prison population, in order to achieve its flagship goal of a 30 percent reduction of the number of people in New Zealand prisons within the next 15 years.

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis has managed to force a slight drop in the number by finding inefficiencies in the system, particularly around bail and electronic monitoring practices.

But without changes to bail and sentencing laws – something that seems unlikely while New Zealand First is part of the coalition – it will be harder to significantly reduce the number of people being sent to prison.

While the executive – in this case the Labour-New Zealand First, and Green Party, Government - have the power to make laws regarding justice, courts and sentencing, the judiciary – judges – are to have complete independence in how it operates within that legal framework.

The Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group Hāpaitia te Oranga Tangata has handed over its final report to the Justice Minister, and the Government’s response is expected before the end of the year.

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