Thursday, October 27, 2022

Peter Jackson: Want faith in the justice system? Avoid courtrooms

Criminals failing on their promise to pay reparation is old news, minister

Whatever prompted Justice Minister Kiri Allan to publicly refer to the tens of millions of dollars owed to victims of crime by way of court-ordered reparation last week, she wasn’t responding to a new phenomenon. People have been promising to pay reparation, then not paying it, for many years, and however aggrieved Allan might be at the injustice of that, she is unlikely to change it.

Those who have never sat in court might not be aware that a reparation order cannot be imposed without the offender’s agreement. Generally speaking they are happy to say they will pay to make amends for whatever it was they did; in many cases it is an all but assured means of avoiding a prison term.

People will generally agree to almost anything to avoid going to jail (although that doesn’t seem to be difficult under the current regime). They will even feign remorse. True!

Anyway, the only issues when it comes to reparation tend to be how much the offender should pay, and at what rate. In my experience, it was rarely difficult for a deeply remorseful criminal and his or her lawyer to persuade a judge that a few dollars a week was reasonable, given the “fact” of the defendant’s state of abject poverty.

That despite the genuine fact that their offending often involved driving a car they owned, and their predilection for alcohol, both of which came well before any consideration of atonement.

One abiding memory of my years spent covering the Kaitaia District Court is of a young man high-fiving his family and friends immediately outside the courtroom door, who had beaten the judge down from ordering $30 a week, and shouting “Woo hoo! I got five bucks!” If memory serves, he was going to be paying that five bucks a week for more than 14 years. I doubt he paid any of it. Nor was it uncommon for those who couldn’t pay their fines to ask a judge to remit them, which they usually were. Reparation could not be remitted; nor could it be turned into community work. Once ordered it stayed ordered, even if no effort was ever made to pay it. And politicians continue to insist that victims come first.

I have long argued, to absolutely no avail, that the state should pay whatever reparation is ordered, then pursue the offender to recover it. And that might be the only thing the current minister can promise that is likely to make a difference. I bet she doesn’t.

At the moment, the system hasn’t got past the feeble demand that those who are ordered to pay reparation must (generally) set up an automatic payment on their bank account.

Whoever thought of that does not qualify as a genius.

What these people do, in droves, is empty their bank accounts the moment their income drops into it. That no doubt applies to those who are earning a living, but is most obvious amongst beneficiaries.

I saw it with my own eyes years ago, at the behest of the police. Kaitaia’s main street came alive at a couple of minutes after midnight on benefit day, as, zombie-like, people emerged from alleys and darkened doorways, many in dressing gowns and pyjamas, to line up at ATMs. If enough money was withdrawn, quickly enough, there wouldn’t be enough to satisfy the automatic payment. Simple.

In the fullness of time the debtor would stand in court and profess ignorance. They had organised an automatic payment, but somehow the bank had cocked it up.

The only alternative the justice system seems to have now is not ordering reparation at all, so the problem of non-payment doesn’t arise. There was a case of that in the Hastings District Court last week, when the judge declared that the 22-year-old defendant could not afford to make amends for her part in stealing $1000 worth of frozen food from a seasonal worker’s hostel.

She had been convicted of burglary, “lesser” dishonesty offences and breaching bail. Three months earlier she had been sentenced to intensive supervision on convictions of theft, trespass, breaching bail and unlawfully getting into a vehicle.

Her co-offender had been jailed for 18 months, and this woman’s reaction outside court when she was sentenced to eight months’ home detention? “I got it — yay!”

The best advice I can give anyone who has, and wants to keep, any skerrick of faith in the justice system is not to go anywhere near a courtroom. The system we have now might be meeting the Government’s stated aim of reducing the prison muster but it is doing nothing to deter criminal behaviour, and it certainly isn’t delivering justice for victims.

Peter Jackson MNZM, former editor of the Northland Age newspaper, 38 years at the helm of this popular paper, now happily retired. This article was first published in the Northland Age 27/10/22.

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