Thursday, July 16, 2009

Law out loud

Chief Justice Sian Elias wasn't far wrong when she anticipated the media reaction to her Shirley Smith lecture, saying "it is bound to be misrepresented along the lines of “Chief Justice says murderers are ‘blameless babes’”. The media summed up this thoughtful 16 page speech with one word; amnesty.

The prison muster is probably going to hit a record high later this year. NZ already has the second highest prison population per capita behind America. The suggestion of using early release for low-level offenders to combat prison overcrowding was the last and most controversial of five points made by the Chief Justice, along with community education, intervention in risk strategies, quality of probation and addressing mental ill health.

They are all fair points. Prisons are filled with not only the bad, but the mad and sad too. While the political focus is on locking people up, little effort is expended on probation. The public are primed for impossibly high levels of risk containment for parolees, making reintegration of released prisoners into the community all that much harder.

Justice Minister Simon Power isn't having a bar of it. He's been pouring cold water on any compromise. Lock 'em up. That's what the voters want, even if it costs $100K a year to keep them in there. Offer convicts bugger all support on release, ensuring many return to life behind bars because they are unable to cope on the outside. This is not some namby pamby hand-wringing. I attended an Act conference in the late 90's where this punishment vs. rehabilitation argument saw some robust debate within the party.

The Institute of Policy Studies is hosting a lecture by Simon Power next week, Thursday 23rd July, on National's plans for the criminal justice system. RSVP to the IPS if you wish to attend. On the day before, Mai Chen is holding a public law lecture in the same theatre at Rutherford House. Should be a good week for free counsel.