Editorial: Corrections gets something correct at last

Last updated 05:00 10/12/2012

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OPINION: William Bell bears the ultimate blame for the evil savagery unleashed in the Mt Wellington-Panmure RSA on December 8, 2001.

However, it was the Probation Service's utter negligence in managing Bell's parole that allowed him to remain in the community and plot murder and robbery when he should have been back behind bars.

For that, the Corrections Department bears some responsibility for the deaths of William Absolum, Mary Hobson and Wayne Johnson and the serious injuries suffered by Susan Couch.

The only thing it has got right in its handling of the case was its decision last week to agree to an out-of-court settlement with Ms Couch, who was suing it for $500,000.

Although the payment does not set a precedent, because the case did not proceed to trial, it underlines the duty of care Corrections has towards the general public. That is a non-negotiable part of the social contract that underpins parole.

In Bell's case, the department failed the public badly. Required visits to his home were not undertaken, he changed addresses, and his probation officer did not see him for five weeks before the robbery because she was on leave.

It did not act on a police report that Bell had assaulted a woman and the parole condition that he undergo drug and alcohol counselling was not complied with because his probation officer believed him when he said he was not drinking.

Unbelievably, given his alcohol problem, Bell was allowed to do work experience at the RSA earlier in 2001. He was able to gain entry on the day of the murders because Ms Couch recognised him and opened the door.

In January 2007, a string of similar failings in the management of freed murderer Graeme Burton culminated in the death of innocent Wainuiomata man Karl Kuchenbecker.

Burton repeatedly breached his parole conditions before a decision was made to recall him to prison. It was not acted on because his probation officer was on holiday.

A damning Audit Office report later found that major faults in the management of parolees continued for more than a year after Mr Kuchenbecker's death.

They included probation officers failing to make regular visits to parolees' homes, and slow and inconsistent enforcement action for parole breaches.

The repeated inability of Corrections to get it right in the case of dangerous parolees is a major concern. At least in the case of Ms Couch, it has been held to account.

The $300,000 paid to her will not repair the physical damage suffered 11 years ago, nor take away the haunting memories of Bell taunting her before he beat her so badly that ambulance officers called to the scene were not sure whether she was still alive.

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It will, however, give her some financial security.

Although the department has mean-spiritedly refused to formally apologise for its reckless failings, the payment is at least an admission of its culpability in Bell being able to commit his terrible crimes.

- The Dominion Post

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