Inside The Sensible Sentencing Conference

So many; I had not thought death had undone so many.
-T.S. Eliot

It’s my first time at a Sensible Sentencing conference, but there’s a distinct sense of deja vu as I wind my way across the Beehive’s banquet hall to my seat. I put it down to all the familiar faces; faces I’ve seen a hundred times before with a slight phosphor blur outside dozens of High Courts.

Eva the publicist has assured us we’re welcome, but a greying man in Sensible Sentencing merchandise – cap and khaki polo shirt – eyes me warily. The family of Karen Jacobs, killed by a partner with mental illness in 1997, are sitting directly across from the press table but avoid eye contact altogether. We are, after all, the Liberal Media. But I’m here today – just like the politicians and police and judges and defense lawyers – to hear Sensible Sentencing’s supporters firsthand and find out what they want from our justice system. If only it were that easy.

***

Sensible Sentencing formed in the wake of the 1999 arrest of Mark Middleton, a Wanganui man who made public plans to torture and kill the man who had raped and murdered his daughter if he was ever released on parole. Though Middleton’s threats were undeniably in breach of the law, his trial became a rallying point for other victims of violent crime who felt marginalised and manipulated by the legal system – led by Garth McVicar, a sympathetic self-styled “cow cockie from Kaitoke”. By the time Middleton was released with a suspended sentence in 2001, McVicar’s earnest oaths and calls for justice had made the group a permanent fixture on the evening news.

In the years since McVicar has fronted the trust on any number of issues, from parole (it shouldn’t exist) to legal aid (it shouldn’t exist for repeat offenders) to our chief justice (she should resign for suggesting a low-risk prisoner amnesty). But McVicar was accused of rank hypocrisy in 2008 when he publicly defended Bruce Emery, a Manurewa businessman who stabbed a 13-year-old tagger, Pihema Cameron, to death outside Emery’s home.

McVicar characterised Emery as “a decent hard working citizen” and said Emery’s violence was mitigated by the fact that Cameron had defaced his fence. When Media 7 presenter Russell Brown challenged McVicar on his comments earlier this year, McVicar said Sensible Sentencing was now looking to start a debate around “entry-level crimes” – presumably with the same calls for long and proscriptive sentences. But today it seems like his supporters have other ideas.

Gil and Lesley Elliot are two of the newest members “in a club nobody wants to join”, as McVicar puts it. Their daughter Sophie was murdered in 2008 by her ex-boyfriend in a graphic assault which shocked the nation. The public outcry over her killer’s defence of partial provocation caused it to be repealed, but Gil isn’t satisfied. In today’s twenty-minute presentation to his fellow victims he rails against what he sees as basic inequities in the choice of counsel, disclosure of evidence, relocation and delay of trials, the convicted’s right to appeal and even the Bill of Rights.

When I finally get the chance to speak to Gil at lunchtime I’m not sure where to start. I begin with Sophie’s story: after all he’s seen and heard, what is it that he believes creates a violent criminal?

He sighs. “It’d be nice to know that, wouldn’t it?”

Sophie’s killer – who was also her lecturer – had just gained his PhD “and ostensibly worked quite hard for it.” The conventional suppositions of broken homes, economic injustice and mental illness don’t quite seem to fit Gil’s experience.

“Three and a half weeks later after graduating he kills our daughter. Why would he do that? He must have known he was going to go to prison if he killed her and he just went ahead and did it.”

I ask whether he thinks prison is a deterrent after all. It’s been a common theme amongst today’s speakers; that ACT’s “three strikes” legislation will stay the hands of would-be thugs who fear a maximum sentence. Gil is unsure whether it will, but not for the reasons I’d assumed – he believes prisons must be too comfortable these days.

“Sixty percent of offenders will reoffend and go back to prison within three years of being released: If prison was that bad they wouldn’t do it because they’d know ‘hell, I don’t want to go back to that place’.

Perhaps it’s the other way around, I venture: perhaps it’s hard to get your life back on track when everyone knows you’re a con. Perhaps there are some people in our prisons – non-violent offenders – who shouldn’t be there at all?

“Probably there are.” He looks down at my press pass and mulls it over for a moment. It’s a tricky one, he says.

“I think there are two types of crime: there’s crimes against property and crimes against the person, and I think crimes against property are at the lower end.

I’m talking burglaries and things like that: they do get a much lesser sentence than somebody who commits a violent crime against someone.”

He doesn’t know what to do with them though – perhaps a return to borstals, a sort of prison-cum-boarding school for young offenders. Perhaps even a remand-type prison with compulsory rehabilitation programmes. But Gil rebuffs the possibility of probation or parole.

“They say that they keep an eye on them out of prison but they often don’t, as you might have heard,” he says, gesturing towards ex-ACT MP Stephen Franks’ seat on the presently empty stage.

“They don’t chase them up.”

It’s a fair point, but it’s not necessarily for lack of trying. Sensible Sentencing blasted a speech by Chief Justice Sian Elias last year which suggested, among other things, an early release programme for low-risk inmates. But Elias’ comments about the country’s probation services – “overwhelmed by its case-load, under-resourced to do the job and insufficiently supported and appreciated” were largely overlooked. I ask Gil whether greater funding and resources might be the key.

“It might,” he says.

***

Later in the day I get to sit down with the Ashleys. Ian and Lorraine are friendly and exceedingly polite; Ian apologises at one point for his one-off use of the word “bullshit”. They are happy to be interviewed, he says, but they are not “high up in the politics”. They are here as friends of the McVicars. And of course to honour their son Liam, who was killed in the back of a prison van in Auckland four years ago today.

The Ashleys are unique amongst today’s attendees because Liam died in custody. It is not lost on us that today’s speakers have spoken only in terms of “the worst violent offenders”, and I silently wince at ACT MP David Garrett’s callous claim that “in C block [they] can kill other inmates and guards… but they can’t kill you.” But Liam represents the other side of rough justice – the morass of prisoners who are not violent, are most likely to benefit from rehabilitation and are at greater risk of suffering violent crime themselves with every day they spend behind bars.

Liam’s story is especially tragic because it was Ian and Lorraine who pressed the charges and refused to post his bail. They tell me the 17-year-old Liam suffered from an attention deficit disorder and had been acting out lately. ‘Borrowing’ Lorraine’s car without permission had been the last straw.

“It was how he perceived prison, really,” she says. “He thought it was a good place to go with all the bros, and we were trying to show him that it wasn’t the place he thought it was.”

But it wasn’t the place they expected either. Ian says he thought Liam would end up somewhere like the Weymouth youth facility he’d visited in the 1980s.

“It was more like an old-style school camp with walls and fences around it and the doors locked, but it wasn’t a clunker jail-type of thing, you know? Everybody sort of got on with everybody.

“This is where I thought Liam was going – and what they did is they put him together with the most violent person in New Zealand.” His voice drops. “Which is just wrong.”

I ask him what they’ve seen of prisons since.

“Just violent, terrible places, filled with gang members and gang prospects. They’re in a mixture with young people who are going in for minor offences and [those people] will come out badly.”

Time for the tough questions, then. I ask them whether they feel marginalised by the black-and-white terms of today’s conference: Violent Crims versus Upright Citizens. Ian is philosophical.

“I think that there’s bigger issues as far as what the Trust’s main message is. They’re having to focus on the very, very violent people in the society before they can move down to the others. You can’t get safety on the streets or safety in society until you start with the hardcore people,” he says, rapping his knuckles on the table for emphasis.

But what can be done for the Liams, I press. If they had their time over with him, what would they do?

Lorraine shows me the notes she’s been keeping from today’s events. “Fresh Starts” and “Limited Service Volunteers” are scrawled in big, bold letters and underlined for good measure. They’re the two “boot camps” for young offenders which National campaigned on in the 2008 election. Lorraine says she doesn’t know much about them but they sound tailor-made for someone like Liam. Ian agrees.

“The [Labour] Government systematically closed down all the special needs classes; all the boot-camp-type places for them as well, so there was nowhere else for Liam to go.”

I ask them what they think of defence lawyer Greg King’s speech. Earlier today King described the Japanese corrections system, which separates inmates by the nature of their offenses. Is it a goer? Absolutely, they say. There’s no reason not to, even.

“It’s redirecting taxpayers’ money which is what they’ve done, I think, with this Fresh Start boot camp and [all] that,” Ian says.

“It only makes sense to me that they initiate some more programmes so that it teaches people before they reoffend – before it gets to prison.”

Is Ian – a Sensible Sentencing supporter – saying he wants to see more diversion? Apparently so.

“Diversion is a good thing I, think, as long as there is a system of cleaning up.

“Prison really should be for the major offenses that society needs to be safe from.”

I can’t help but express my surprise: there are a lot of people out there who see the SST as… I search for the right words. Authoritarian? Dogmatic?

“Right-wing rednecks?” Ian suggests with a grin. Exactly, I reply. But like anything in the justice system, it’s not that simple.

Whether it’s diversion or probation or rehabilitation, Ian says they’re in favour of whatever works: if someone takes a life they should expect nothing, but there are others, the Liams, who still have a lot of potential. I glance at the clock; it’s just turned five and their shuttle is waiting outside. So just to clarify, I ask as we gather up our things, the Ashleys don’t stand for deep dark dungeons after all. Ian laughs and sets me straight.

“Put all the evil people in the deep dark dungeons – but to my mind it’s not for everybody.”

Sensible sentencing indeed.

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2 Comments on “Inside The Sensible Sentencing Conference”

  1. peteremcc says:

    I think you’ll find that it’s not that the SST isn’t right wing, it’s that when the media bother to actually listen for once instead of relying on assumptions or biases, they find that right-wingers actually have “sensible” law and order policies.

    When, did ANYONE last report on David Garrett’s rehabilitation ideas, for example?

  2. Peter Bonisch says:

    For some reason, I seem to be commenting on your blogs today.

    Briefly, before leaving NZ almost a decade agon(quite possibly for good), I spent a while working on a brief contract in the head office of the Prisons Service. Not everyone there impressed me, but the compassion and seriousness of purpose was evident and exemplary. The rehabilitation initiatives were well thought through and stood, at least in my estimation, a good chance of helping people. They were properly designed and structured, trialled and evaluated – professionally done.

    I think your brief piece is excellent at capturing both the complexity of the problem and the need to keep in mind that the Prison Service is dealing with human beings. The terrible story of the boy killed in the police van is a reminder that you lock up and offender but you release a criminal. As a society, we (I use that term advisedly as I no longer live in NZ) need to be sure that someone’s offence justifies (a) depriving them of their liberty and (b) criminalising them through the prison experience.


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