Are they getting tougher on crime?

Last week was a great killing week. The sainted Sir Peter Blake in Brazil, the woman in the ditch, the children in Masterton and the Mt Wellington RSA robbery-murder. Killing is normal in the news now.

So what are “they” doing about it? “They” who are supposed to fix everything and too often claim they can. The politicians.

They are going in two directions at once, toughening penalties and softening them.

For example, Phil Goff’s Sentencing and Parole Reform Bill, when he amends it, will require courts to sentence exceptional murderers (the RSA ones might qualify) to at least 17 years prison but the otherwise mandatory 10-year minimum disappears for what you might call excusable murders. For most murderers “life” will continue to mean 10 years or a bit more, which you may find as offensive to commonsense as I do.

The nonsense that a prison term for other crimes is actually only two-thirds the time the judge says it is will also go. In nasty cases judges will be statutorily advised to set a minimum close to the maximum; for others the convict may be out after only a third. There is also a strong direction to fine rather than imprison.

Punishment is also abolished as a purpose of sentence. No matter how dastardly the crime or evil the crim, the perpetrator is not to be punished. Instead the purposes are accountability, instilling a sense of responsibility, recognition of the victim’s interest, reparation, denunciation, deterrence, protection of the community and rehabilitation.

And in a nutshell in that list is a major tension — between social order and victims’ rights.

The law in the distant past dealt with crimes against the person and property as issues between aggressor and victim and so principally a matter of reparation. Then it swung to the other extreme. The state, as guardian of social order, appropriated control over crimes and offences. Victims were left out.

Slowly since the mid-1980s some rights to redress are being restored. Goff’s Victims Rights Bill and his sentencing bill take this some steps further.

For example, reparations are to be mandatory for emotional or physical harm and damage to or loss of property, unless there are extenuating circumstances. Other sentences may be imposed in addition to reparations to address the public’s interest in social order (and, not to mince words, desire for revenge).

But there is to be no scope for the state to pay compensation and recover it from the criminal.

ACT’s Stephen Franks, a liberal on most matters but a fire-eater on crime, reckons the length of a prison term is also an element of victims’ rights. Victims often feel cheated when they continue to suffer while attackers go free.

Franks would put the victim’s right at 25 years imprisonment for a “foul murder” (not, for example, a pub brawl), the equivalent of losing a generation out of one’s life.

I suspect most ordinary folk would agree. A huge majority voted for the 1999 petition demanding, among other things, longer prison sentences.

But there are limits to Goff’s licence. One is the liberal instinct of most Labour MPs — suppressed when Helen Clark let him, Mike Moore and George Hawkins off the leash in 1996 to push a harder law and order line. The other is Alliance Corrections Minister Matt Robson’s profoundly different approach.

Robson points out that locking more people up has not lowered the crime rate. And it is costly: on average for each prisoner $55,000 a year in total, including $30,000 “hotel” costs.

It makes more sense to go hard on lesser offences (hence Hawkins’ attack on burglary) and to get criminals to go straight. But prevention and rehabilitation also cost money. Rehabilitation in and out of prison is under-resourced.

Franks says, for example, he has found the probation service understaffed and demoralised in many places, so parole is not the strictly supervised course back into society supposed in theory.

He also fumes that many sentences are not complied with: he has found $360 million of fines are outstanding, despite tougher recent collection powers.

If fines often go unpaid and prison sentences are often less than they seem, what can be said of the “justice” system?

That it is and will stay a political sore. Goff has work to do yet.