Elias opens can of worms desperately wiggling to be free

by Jake Quinn

The astonishingly refreshing highlight of the media week for me was the panel discussion on Radio NZ afternoons on Friday with Jim Mora and his guests, author Gordon Mclauchlan and “occasional author” and media commentator Brian Edwards. They were joined by Otago Dean of Law Professor Mark Henaghan.

Please take a listen, as this is what happens when intelligent lefties get together (and are permitted) to talk about the justice system, the Chief Justice’s recent speech and the Justice Minister’s savage over-reaction to it.

It really surprised me, not because what they said was controversial, but because we so rarely get to hear intelligent lefties talk about justice issues in the New Zealand media. When we think justice in the news, we think Paul Henry interviewing Garth McVicor.

For too long we have allowed hang-him-high popularist vengeance to dictate our justice policy. Edwards rightly raises the point that the average violent offender comes from a background of long term unemployment and institutionalism from a young age.

Furthermore, he stresses that the counties with the longest prison sentences (ironically hailed as such great deterrents) also have the highest violent crime rates.

Top that off with the evidence that suggests that the bigger the gap between the rich and poor the higher the crime rate and we have a series of blearingly obvious circumstances desperately needing to be addressed.

And from the papers..

It was great to see the legal fraternity swing in behind Dame Sian Elias:

Society president John Marshall, QC, said Elias did not criticise any specific government policy.
“What she has done, in a compelling way, is to raise questions for consideration, and make suggestions based on 40 years’ experience with our criminal justice system,” Marshall said.
“Judges have to hear criminal cases every day. They have knowledge and understanding of the criminal justice system which is second to none. When they speak, responsibly and carefully as the chief justice has done, we need to listen, not criticise.
“Most of what the chief justice says is non-controversial, and most lawyers would fully agree with her comments – for example that imprisonment does not reduce crime, and that the causes of crime need to be addressed, as do the issues of mental health and substance abuse.”

“Society president John Marshall, QC, said Elias did not criticise any specific government policy. “What she has done, in a compelling way, is to raise questions for consideration, and make suggestions based on 40 years’ experience with our criminal justice system,” Marshall said.

“Judges have to hear criminal cases every day. They have knowledge and understanding of the criminal justice system which is second to none. When they speak, responsibly and carefully as the chief justice has done, we need to listen, not criticise.

Most of what the chief justice says is non-controversial, and most lawyers would fully agree with her comments – for example that imprisonment does not reduce crime, and that the causes of crime need to be addressed, as do the issues of mental health and substance abuse.”

Today’s HoS editorial reflects on Dame Elias’s speech and Power’s reaction to it, ending on this thoughtful note:

“Faced with a prison system half of whose graduates will reoffend within five years (and the recidivism rate is higher among those who serve long terms); and with the Government moving to double-bunking and locking prisoners up in converted shipping containers; we would be less than sensible if we did not consider alternatives to simply imposing harsher sentences.

Dame Sian, who had a distinguished legal career behind her before Simon Power left primary school, has every right to express her thoughts on the matter. And we have every right to expect that our lawmakers read and closely consider what she has to say rather than rule her evidence inadmissible.”

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