Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Avoiding the Obvious

Elephants in the Room

Marty Sharpe

There are a few things you get used to when you spend a lot of time in court. First, Māori make up the vast majority of defendants; second, it's dominated by the same surnames and families coming up year after year; third, alcohol and/or drugs are almost always involved; and four; gang influence, specifically from the Mongrel Mob is insidious.

There is a problem, but if you ask me it's not the justice system, it's the system that allows these kids to become victims and consequently offenders.

This isn't news. We've been talking about this for decades. Which is why the justice summit seemed a strange thing to hold.  It's strange because it's tackling a symptom, not the cause.

If there was one thing I'd want to impress on anyone who was interested, it's that prison sentences are not given out lightly. Listening to some commentators and critics, you would think the judiciary was stacked with men and women itching to send defendants to prison.

In fact, judges and others in the justice system are at pains not to send people to jail.
Community-based sentences, fines, community work are commonplace. A jail sentence is a rarity and usually only handed down when the argument for a custodial sentence is overwhelmingly persuasive. Often as a means of protecting others.

Court is full of tragedy. Seeing a young person sent to jail is the greatest of them all.

Nothing in court is quite so sad as hearing a lawyer or judge recite the background these youths have endured. It's one thing to hear about the effects of abuse and neglect on a child. It's another to see it manifested in a sad, angry, and lost human being standing before you.

I have seen and heard the despair in judges who have been left with no option other than to jail a youth. I've seen judges affected to the point their voice cracks and they must call an adjournment after the defendant has stood down.

One of the most poignant sentencing notes I've read was by Judge Gerard Winter. A judge in Auckland for seven years, he was sentencing an 18-year-old for kidnap and aggravated robbery last year. He robbed two international students at gunpoint.

Before sentencing the man to 25 months' jail, the judge traversed the figures of Māori crime and incarceration rates included in the Waitangi Tribunal's Tū Mai te Rangi report. Judge Winter granted the youth a five-month discount to his sentence on the strength of a cultural report that covered the decades and generations that preceded the youth, and his whānau's rural-to-urban move and its impacts. 

"Each and every day this court is engaged in sentencing, far too often there are young Māori offenders appearing for sentence on the very worst crime at category 3 level," the judge said.

"A judge must always be temperate and moderate in their comments, particularly when sentencing, but the only way I can express the volume of young Māori offenders appearing before the court is that it is a tsunami. And like such a big wave, it wreaks havoc as it floods society with young, discultured and fractured young men, without a sense of being or place."

The sort of summit we needed was one that looked at stemming this wave before it started, not picking up the pieces once it's broken.


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