Tuesday, June 27, 2023

John MacDonald: Time to rein-in judges?

Imagine being the victim of a crime and you’re sitting in court for the sentencing of the person who offended against you.

You listen to both sides of the argument putting their case for a stronger sentence or a lighter sentence. You might even read out a victim impact statement. Or it might be read out on your behalf.

And then, after all that, the judge clears their throat and starts to read out their judgement.

It’s never a “thank you for being here, I sentence you to…” etc etc.

Generally, the judge goes through the details of the case and then, eventually, gets around to the bit you’re there for - the sentencing.

Which begins with what you might call a “starting point”. So, let’s say it’s five years. But then the judge works their way through all the factors they’ve taken into account to settle on a final sentence.

It might be what the offender went through as a child. The fact they pleaded guilty often works in their favour. All sorts of things. And this is, generally, all wrapped up in what’s known as a Cultural Report.

Other things covered in these reports about offenders’ lives can include other things such as whether a parent or loved one has passed away; abuse they themselves might have experienced; their use of drugs; disconnection from family; and their physical and mental health.

So starting point five years, time off for this, time off for that, and the judge tells the offender that —after taking all those things into account— they’ve settled on a sentence of two years. Which would be a 60 percent discount.

Not unheard of. In fact, there have been much worse examples —in my opinion, anyway— of judges going way too far with their discounted sentences.

Victims advocate Ruth Money told Newstalk ZB this morning of a sentencing she was at last year, where there was a 73 percent discount.

That sort of thing wouldn’t happen, though, under a policy announced by the National Party yesterday.

It says that, if it’s in government after the election in October, it will limit sentence discounts to 40 percent. And I like it.

I agree we should have restrictions on how much judges can discount sentences. Because how devastating must it be for victims not to see their perpetrators face the full consequences for their offending?

Yes —as the Government is saying— it would have something of an impact on the independence of the judiciary. But I think the judiciary has taken its independence too far.

If there's anything I don't like about National’s policy, it's the lack of costings.

When the policy came out yesterday it was Labour’s opportunity to turn the tables on National and do the old “show me the money” thing that John Key did back in the day.

So I think the policy was a bit weak on that front. To be fair, though, show me anyone who reckons they can forecast future crime rates and I’ll show them the door.

But, overall, I like National’s idea of limiting sentence discounts to 40 percent. In fact, in some cases, a 40 percent sentence discount would still be too much for me.

Overall, though, I like it.

John MacDonald is the Canterbury Mornings host on Newstalk ZB Christchurch. This article was first published HERE

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