OPINION: We're still sometimes sending Southland people to jail in the full knowledge that, by rights, that's not where they should be.
Such was the situation that an openly frustrated Judge Raoul Neave found himself in when he sentenced 19-year-old Benjamin Paul Vercoe to six months' prison.
Vercoe was appearing on two charges of assaulting a female, which is by no means a trivial offence. But though the consensus was that he was a man needing help, the question the judge found unanswerable was from whom?
Southland mental health services had determined he was not mentally unwell. Though the report of a psychiatrist who saw Vercoe on remand recommended that Southland mental health be "stretched" to provide him support, this proposal was unable to find official traction.
Almost farcically, other support agencies were no less adamant that he was too unwell for them to be able to help.
Vercoe, who had already been in custody on remand for 10 weeks, wound up receiving a jail sentence without anyone involved pretending that this was a satisfactory decision.
But he had to go somewhere. Even his own lawyer, Mike Newell, said it plainly enough that he would promptly reoffend "because he is not going to be able to care for himself".
So off to jail for him it was. Not disturbed enough for this outfit to help, too disturbed for that outfit to help. Serve him right for not being healthier, or less healthy.
How this must stick in the craw of any judge worth his position. And Judge Neave, emerging from the unfathomable rationales in front of him, was left to say it plainly that if our lawmakers want to reduce crime, they need to provide more flexible tools.
The jail term is intended only as a stop-gap measure, to give the probation service time to find a better solution. How long Vercoe languishes in the wrong place remains to be seen.
Dismally, the same day the same judge came across a related resourcing problem, with a disqualified drink-driver, Regan Charles Lewis Elder. The judge was told that funding- related constraints were affecting some of the services at the region's Drug and Alcohol Specialist Service.
That option off the table, in this case, the judge found himself able to impose only intensive supervision and further driving disqualification. The judge again questioned, should anyone be willing to pay attention, how offending rates could be reduced in these constraints.
The question was not rhetorical.
So we must, collectively, seek to answer it. If the answer is unacceptable, we must front up to what we must do to change it.
The Vercoe case carries distressing similarities to one four years ago when Invercargill's Judge Kevin Phillips, his sense of justice hugely offended, declared intemperately he would kick heads to prevent a young child sex offender from simply being trooped off to jail, where he was sure the autistic teenager, who had a mental age markedly younger than his 19 years, would not be able to cope.
For a while there, it did appear that support agencies and lawyers were going to get the teen more targeted help, but another spasm of offending in the meantime meant that he did go to jail.
Judges are oftentimes well-placed to put communities on alert to the failings of agencies and governmental policies. And hereabouts, anyway, they don't tend to be gratuitously alarmist. We should heed them, at least to the point of testing what they say.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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