Law change gives more criminals home comforts

Judges use change in the law to keep criminals out of prison

Last updated 04:56 17/02/2008

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Changes to home detention rules have produced an avalanche of criminals serving their prison terms at home.

The Criminal Justice Reform Act came into force on October 1 last year and allows judges to sentence offenders directly to home detention.

Between October 15, when the first sentence of home detention was imposed, and February 1 this year, 592 people were sentenced to home detention. This is despite the courts not being fully operational over the Christmas period.

Parole Board figures show only 762 prisoners were approved for a similar sentence of home detention in the 12 months to June last year.

Under the old rules the Parole Board was required to interview offenders who were granted leave to apply for home detention by a judge. The Parole Board no longer determines a prisoner's suitability.

Judges would act on the same information as the board provided by the Community Probation Service.

Auckland University professor of criminal law Warren Brookbanks said the surge in home detention numbers was not surprising.

"One of the reasons is it's a novel sentence," he said.

"Previously home detention has been tacked onto the end of the prison sentence with the new act it's a sentence in its own right. And I think judges are keen to use it as far as possible to keep people out of jail."

Brookbanks said the trend would put pressure on the Community Probation Service and "could lead to some difficulties in terms of overseeing the vast numbers".

Corrections figures showed 39 prisoners on home detention were convicted of new offences in the 12 months to July last year the highest recorded number of breaches. The previous year saw 14, with the average over three years 21.

The new act gives judges other sentencing options such as an electronically monitored curfew and intensive supervision. Judges can also order prisoners to do community work while on home detention.

In another twist, landlords are likely to find themselves unwittingly housing convicted criminals on home detention.

Authorities do not need to consult with landlords before sentencing offenders to home detention at their properties. But courts do require that the prisoner live with a responsible "sponsor".

Property investment consultant Scotney Williams said landlords would probably be "nervous" and unhappy to learn they were hosting prisoners but he took a "pragmatic view".

"It's a bit like a nimby syndrome not in my backyard. But they have to live somewhere and it's normally rented accommodation."

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The Sunday Star-Times has learnt of a landlord who discovered a tenant was on home detention only after seeing police cars visit the property.

"I guess the concern would be the unknown of it. You might think: `Am I going to have a murderer living on my property?'," Williams said."One of the issues is, do you need to consult landlords? And the truth is if anyone consulted with the landlord the first thing they are going to do is give [the tenant] 90 days' notice."

But Williams advised landlords to be reasonable and, if they were concerned, "do plenty of inspections".

"I wouldn't be too struck about having someone like that living in one of my properties but that's not really the issue. The justice department is looking after the system as a whole and these people have to go somewhere."

When asked if he himself would tell a prospective landlord he was on home detention, Williams said: "To be honest, I wouldn't."

 

- Sunday Star Times

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