Lyndon Hood - law abider, Lower Hutt

Monday, January 10, 2005

You can start the Internet again, I'm home

I thought that rather than compiling my own top 20 best-of-2004-lists list, I'd take the illusory opportunity of a new year to tie up some loose ends. But first, in the holiday spirit, I want to revisit and old friend.

Here at Fighting Talk, we just love talking about prisoners. Matt has even been keeping Listener readers up to date with the latest in cell decor. I conclude that the authorities use paint left over from doing the exteriors of state schools in the '80s.

But enough with the obscure in-jokes.

United Future's proposed justice policy went public, appropriately enough, during the silly season. It sucks, for pretty much exactly the reasons outlined by No Right Turn (in a post titled "Draconian and Barbaric"). Crime isn't out of control, and cruelty to criminals will make no difference. Oh, and rehabilitation works very well, if we could only run more than a handful of programmes nationwide.

Leave aside civil liberties. These are questions of fact.

And David Farrar, while giving the policy as a whole about 5 more points out of 10 than I would, explains the hazards of cumulative sentencing:

Always sounds appealing but I remember the case in Iran where a postal worker who stole mail got sentenced to a month in jail for every letter not delivered. This meant a 15,456 year sentence.

When it comes to murders, we almost have this as double murders get longer non parole conditions. I wouldn't object to rapists getting cumulative sentences but trying to abolish all concurrent sentences will mean those who commit numerous petty crimes will serve longer in jail than those who do serious ciolent crimes.

And has anyone seen Marc Alexander's website? I'm referring to the feedback section, just after he dismisses warnings that chemical castration wouldn't work (overall, my impression is that when Mr Alexander asserts that he 'has credible evidence' this should be read as 'doesn't have credible evidence'. Just ask Russell). This is in answer to someone wondering who will pay for all the extra prisoners:
Also if we allow a tendering process for efficient prison management; make inmates work for their own upkeep; and so on, all these things will actually be economic.
"Make inmates work for their own upkeep"? I didn't notice forced labour mentioned as a policy plank in the press reports. Charming.

And while as far as I know Auckland Central Remand Prison is doing well, there are some absolute horror stories from private prisons in the US where cost becomes the overriding factor.

Meanwhile, the Government is under way with its prisoner compensation legislation (submissions close February 4), acting with the rather surreal official assurance that it will not breach the Bill of Rights. As you may know, the gist is that, in particularly heinous cases of institutional abuse, prisoners can apply to not be compensated.

The punchline to all this, and a little window into the alternate moral universe of Phil Goff, came in a feature in Saturday's Dom Post - David McLoughlin was once again wearing his opinions on his sleeve (since I agree with him this time it's not so irritating). As any compensation won by the prisoner would be set aside for the prisoner's victims...

The only way an inmate could actually get any compensation awarded would be if a victim declined to apply for it. But Mr Goff says that Victim Support or the Sensible Sentencing Trust would then be able to apply, with the victims consent.
I make no apologies for seeing no moral reason that the Sensible Sentencing Trust should be directly compensated for a crime against some random person. Even if a could accept the rest of the system, if the victim doesn't want the money, but does want somebody else to have it, they should apply for it, then give it away. The same argument applies to Victim Support, but at least they do something.

Does this mean victims lucky enough to have their assailants abused in prison are going to be hit on by lobby groups?

And since when did the SS Trust become a branch of Government?

Marc Alexander (he of the slave labour) is United Future's law and order spokesman and a founding member of the Trust. Not that this is illegal or anything, but it is a bit like having David Lane from the Society for the Preservation of Community Standards as their arts and culture spokesman. Though, now I think about it, that's not so far-fetched.

Leaving aside the way this is more legislation cobbled up against a particular crisis (Was there a public uproar? I only heard politicians. But then, I listen to National Radio), we're clearly in a bidding war based partly on the wrongheaded idea that diminishing prisoners' rights somehow enhances those of their victims.

And if you combine the compensation legislation, which removes the incentive for prisoners to complain about abuse, with the abolition of parole (the words "failed experiment" can also be found on Marc Alexander's site), which removes the incentive for prisoners to behave well, that sounds like riots to me.

I'm tempted to describe the Greens and the Progressives as the voice of sanity. There's a novel thought.

Incidentally, a note on life meaning life: When someone is sentenced to life they get a minimum release date. Once they've been in prison that long, they are assessed by the parole board, who may well decide to keep them in longer. The parole board will often have a lot more information on the offender's risk to society than the sentencing judge had. If the are let out of jail, they are on parole for the rest of their life. If they violate any of their conditions they can be sent back to keep serving their life sentence. There are people in New Zealand jails who will not be let out.

Personally, I suspect that the best way to actually support victims' rights is to move away from retributive justice to something more restorative. Where possible, redemptive. But that might involve being nice, even helpful, to prisoners. And it would require some kind of moral leadership and a recognition that respect for other people starts in our prisons, rather than ending there.

I don't see that happening any time soon.