Editorial: A worrying sentence

Invercargill judge Kevin Phillips will have widespread community support for his concern that a child-sex offender is being allowed back into the community, sentenced to home detention rather than the term of imprisonment that the judge believes he most justly deserves.

The man, who was given name suppression to protect the identity of the victim as often happens in cases involving indecencies against young girls, admitted in the Invercargill District Court on Friday two charges of indecently assaulting the young girl and was sentenced by an obviously frustrated Judge Phillips to eight months of home detention.

It appears that his sentencing options did not include imprisonment because of recent Court of Appeal decisions that child-sex offenders were to be allowed home detention, even in situations where, according to Judge Phillips, the offending was appalling.

Few would argue with that description in this case. The sexual abuse had included the man touching the girl's private parts and her being forced to touch his, getting her to pose for him, taking photos of her and making her watch pornographic movies with him.

Judge Phillips said that but for the Court of Appeal's rulings he would have had no hesitation in sending the man to prison for 16 months, adding: "The old adage when sentencing in such cases was skin on skin and you went in. I don't think this man should have home detention but in the end I am caught by those [previous court] decisions."

Many in the community will also struggle with the concept that home detention is a suitable sentence for men who have demonstrated an unhealthy predilection for young girls, because home detention in essence means being returned into the community, with quite limited restrictions.

The sentence of home detention, introduced in November 2007, was seen as an enlightened way to deal with offenders who would otherwise have been sent to prison for up to two years. It requires the offender to remain at an approved residence under electronic monitoring and has been a useful alternative for relatively minor offending, providing a wake-up call short of locking up the offender.

It also has another advantage - it is what the Justice Ministry describes on its website as "cost effective", about one quarter of the cost of keeping a prisoner in jail.

The crux in this case, though, is that home detention isn't actually that at all. The offenders are allowed to keep working and maintain family relationships. So for a large part of each day this man will be out and about in the community.

As the ministry also points out on its website, the fact that offenders sentenced to home detention remain in the community means they may have greater opportunity to commit further offences than they would have had, if they had been sentenced to a term of imprisonment.

Given that child-sex offenders are a particularly predatory threat to their communities, many people will be as concerned as Judge Phillips that this man, whose offending the judge described as abhorrent, is being returned to relatively unrestricted access to the public at large.

Especially since there appear to be serious flaws in the electronic monitoring that is a crucial part of home detention. As University of Waikato foundation professor of electronics Jonathan Scott noted in this newspaper last week, the electronic monitoring system operated in New Zealand relies on signals similar to those of cellphones and we know how unreliable they can be.

The Southland Times