The Government's proposed "three strikes" legislation is an "empty political gesture" which could let criminals out of prison earlier than if they were sentenced to preventive detention, a criminologist says.
Prime Minister John Key announced the "Three Strikes and Max" policy yesterday, saying the Government had identified 36 offences that would count as a strike against offenders aged over 18.
Each of the identified offences carried a maximum sentence of seven years' jail or more.
An offender would get a standard sentence and warning for their first serious offence on the list. The second offence would usually lead to a jail term with no parole and another warning. On conviction for a third serious offence, the offender would get the maximum penalty in prison for that offence with no parole.
That would mean no prospect of ever being freed for those convicted of murder or manslaughter.
But Victoria University criminology Professor John Pratt said the proposed law change would let a third-time offender out after a fixed period, whereas imposing preventive detention would mean they could be kept in prison for the rest of their life if they were still deemed a risk.
"If I had the choice ... and I was a third-time, serious violent offender, I think I would definitely choose the three-strikes law to be punished by rather than preventive detention."
The policy was an example of changes to penal law "being made on the strength of sensational cases or for purely strategic political reasons", Prof Pratt told NZPA.
"This one, obviously, as far as I'm concerned, it's nothing more than an empty political gesture."
Howard League for Penal Reform president Peter Williams QC was also critical of the "hysterical" legislation.
He told Radio New Zealand the Government was not prepared to look at the underlying causes of crime, and taking away the incentive of parole meant there was no deterrent for crime.
"Parole has two benefits: one, it encourages people to reform. Secondly, it encourages people to behave in prisons.
"With the abolition of parole, there'll be no incentive for people to rehabilitate."
As well, there would be a danger to prison wardens as prisoners would have nothing to lose.
ACT Party justice and corrections spokesman David Garrett said while prisons were fuller than the Government would like, the proposed legislation was "not about locking people up".
"It's about sending a message, giving an incentive to people who are embarking on or who are in a life of crime, and about making the place safer for decent New Zealanders."
If passed into law, someone committing a major violent or sexual offence would receive a standard sentence and warning for the first offence and a jail term with no parole and a further warning for a second offence.
On conviction for a third offence, the person would receive the maximum penalty in prison for that offence with no parole.
The list of qualifying offences comprised all the major violence and sexual offences that had a maximum penalty of seven years' prison or more.
The Maori Party says it is appalled by the Government's proposals.
Co-leaders Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia said they wanted to reduce violent offending, but said "punitive, populist policy" would not bring about the long-term change needed.
"The Government's narrow focus on crime and punishment leaves justice right out of the picture. These proposals will create huge disparities in sentencing, and punishment that is completely out of proportion to the crime," they said.
"They attack the foundations of justice, where judges make decisions based on the facts of the case. Judicial discretion is overruled by political dogma."
Kim Workman, from lobby group Rethinking Crime and Punishment, agreed, saying the policy effectively transferred discretion from the judiciary to the police.
"Under the proposed legislation, the police could for example, lay a charge of assault of aggravated injury against an offender, which is a three strikes offence. They could then plea bargain with the offender, and reduce the charge to aggravated assault, which is not eligible, on condition that the offender pleaded guilty to the lesser charge.
"Police 'overcharging' is a major issue in New Zealand, with around 10 percent of all charges laid by the police being subsequently withdrawn.
"Judges on the other hand, can only decline to sentence under the three strikes legislation, when it would be 'manifestly unjust' to do so. All the discretion lies with the police."
However, he said the new version of the proposed legislation was an improvement on the original bill in that avoided a life sentence of 25 years on the third strike.
Mr Workman said offenders sentenced without parole lacked the motivation to reform and could become a major management problem in prison.
"The longer you keep people in prison, the less likely they are to reform."
Offenders facing a third-strike offence were also more likely to intimidate witnesses and victims, Mr Workman said.
Penal reform campaigner Kathy Dunstall, of the Howard League, said the changes pandered to "the populist view that longer sentences lead to a safer community".
But Sensible Sentencing Trust spokesman Garth McVicar said it was "just deserts" for violent criminals.
The policy will be added to the Sentencing and Parole Reform Bill, which is before the law and order select committee and due back in Parliament for its second reading in March.
The policy would require an extra 56 prison beds after five years, increasing to 725 beds after 50 years.
Last year it cost $249.25 a day to keep a prisoner in New Zealand.
It cost $9.92 a day to have a prisoner on a community-based sentence.
The prison population has increased by 34 per cent since 2002/03 to more than 8400 and all available capacity will be fully used within months.
Mr Key said the policy was aimed at people "who consistently pose a very real threat to the safety and security of other New Zealanders."
"Some people will say this bill is harsh, but it's only harsh on the very worst and most dangerous of repeat offenders."
Police and Corrections Minister Judith Collins said a court would be allowed to override the maximum sentence with non-parole on the third strike if it would be "manifestly unjust" to impose the penalty.
More maximum-security beds would be needed as that was already the growth area in prisons, she said.
"And that's because, frankly, we have become a more violent society."
It was "foolish to think" that every prisoner could be rehabilitated. "A justice system can't just be about the cost in money and it can't just be about the cost in beds, it's also got to be about the victims."
The policy was created as part of the Government's coalition agreement with ACT, but has been delayed by negotiations to water down that party's tougher "three strikes and you're out" policy.
- with By JOHN HARTEVELT and IAN STEWARD, and NZPA