Minister tells judge to butt out

01:21, Jul 22 2009

The country's top judge appears to be on a collision course with the Government after condemning most of its law and order policies.

Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias has raised concerns in the Beehive with a speech to the Law Society that slated the "punitive and knee-jerk" response of successive governments to criminal justice issues.

Justice Minister Simon Power has told Elias to butt out of government policy.

Elias, the country's first female chief judge, has 40 years of legal experience.

She said the "dramatic rise" in violent crime and the near-doubling of the prison population since the mid-1980s had coincided with a move from rehabilitative strategies to more punitive responses.

Politicians had listened to popular opinion at the expense of experts in criminal justice, despite overwhelming evidence that longer prison sentences did not work, she said.


"All of the evidence and all the informed opinions seem to point to the futility of believing that the causes of crime can be addressed by penal policy and the criminal justice process," she said.

"Penal policy is largely irrelevant to reduction of crime and to making our communities safest."

Elias said the trend towards putting more emphasis on the victims of crime was threatening the impartiality of the justice system and damaging victims emotionally.

The speech, delivered last week but made public yesterday, suggested shortening prison sentences, allowing more bail and probation, and making greater use of community-based sentences.

Elias also suggested the use of "executive amnesties", where prisoners are sent into the community early to prevent prison overcrowding.

Her suggestions fly in the face of Government policy, with National pushing through legislation lengthening prison sentences, making it tougher it get bail and removing parole for repeat violent offenders.

They are also highly unusual as judges normally abide by a convention that Parliament and the judiciary do not criticise each other.

Elias' speech may signal she is nearing the end of her term. The Government cannot sack judges, and the chief justice is appointed by the governor-general, but Elias was appointed in 1999 and chief justices usually serve for about 10 years.

Power said yesterday he was surprised by Elias' speech.

"The Government is elected to set sentencing policy. Judges are appointed to apply it."

Power said he had been careful not to comment on recent sentencing decisions by the judiciary, particularly Court of Appeal decisions to reduce sentences.

Asked whether he agreed with any of Elias' suggestions, Power said: "Any decisions that the Government makes will be made as a result of the policies on which we were elected."

The Sensible Sentencing Trust said it was outraged by Elias' speech.

Spokesman Garth McVicar said her suggestion of letting low-risk prisoners out early was "totally, totally corrupt", and he believed she was wrong about the reasons for the rise in the crime rate.

"Until we get back to holding people accountable for the crimes they commit, then ultimately we are going to have more crimes committed," he said.

Prison reform campaigner Kim Workman said Elias had not suggested anything unusual.

Many US states were implementing early-release schemes to cut overcrowding, he said, and many jurisdictions had accepted there was no connection between crime rates and imprisonment.

Corrections Minister Judith Collins said this week that the Government was in "a race against time" to ensure there were enough beds for the forecast inmate numbers.


The Press