Bail law and remand prisoner numbers

A change to bail laws is credited as a significant reason for a rapidly increasing prison population, but a change in approach by judges has also contributed.

Minister of Justice Andrew Little has indicated he wants to change the bail laws, but this is a tricky political issue. If bail laws are relaxed it’s certain that any significant crime committed by someone on bail will be publicised as a failure.

Longer prison sentences without adequate mental health and addiction treatment also contributes to high levels of recidivism, but examples of that tend to not be publicised so much by those with tough on crime political motives.

RNZ: Relaxing bail laws: How risky is it?

In April, Justice Minister Andrew Little signalled the bail laws might be changed, as increasing remand numbers have seen the prison population balloon.

However, the families of people murdered by someone on bail want the law to remain as it stands.

Almost 1000 more people a year are now remanded in custody than before the bail laws were tightened in 2013, as a result of the murder of Auckland teenager Christie Marceau in 2011.

Her killer, Akshay Chand, was on bail at the time and living just 300 metres from her home, having already been charged with kidnapping and threatening to stab her.

The sad case of Christie Marceau is often used in arguments in favour of being tougher on people charged with crimes (not tryed or convicted).

But some emphasis does need to be put on protecting people who have been threatened or are at risk of violence.

Dr Liz Gordon a social researcher, who is also president of PILLARS, a group helping prisoners’ families, said the average number of murders in New Zealand each year was about 80.

She said when you put that figure alongside the extra 1000 people remanded in custody, it was an emotional over-reaction to suggest Andrew Little would have blood on his hands if he loosened the bail laws.

But emotional over-reactions can be expected from people with political motives. The ‘Sensible Sentencing Trust’ plays on fears of crime.

David Farrar ran a series of posts publicising some of the worse criminals who could potentially receive lighter sentences if the 3 strikes law is scrapped – ‘could’ should be emphasised, as judges usually go to great lengths to apply sentences appropriate to both the convictions they are dealing with and the records of the criminals.

“The mathematics simply doesn’t add up. They’re not going to all get out of the prisons and start murdering like mad and if you find good alternatives for them, perhaps you can actually stop them ever having to go to prison again.”

I don’t think anyone is arguing there should be no bail – I remained ‘at large’ despite a private prosecutor’s demands that I be incarcerated.

We have to have non-imprisonment for many offences and offenders. The difficult trick is where to draw the line.

Dr Gordon agrees Akshay Chand should never have got bail, as what he did was a foreseeable crime, but she said Mr Little needed to take a dispassionate view of what was best before making a final decision on the bail laws.

Chand getting bail was an error of judgment – as things turned out, it’s easy to be wise after the subsequent murder. I’m sure some people who have threatened others haven’t murdered while on bail.

Dr Gordon said there were also other downsides to keeping people on remand in jail, particularly younger offenders, as the remand units are active recruitment centres for youth gangs.

Remanding in custody can set up young first time offenders for further offending.

She is also concerned that, despite it costing more than $100 million a year to keep those 1000 extra people remanded in custody, they received no support while there to improve their lives.

If it costs money to protect the public then money needs to be spent. But…

“Those people are in a very difficult position. They often can’t see their children because visiting days for people on remand is often mid-week and the kids can only visit on the weekend.

“They don’t get access to training courses, drug and alcohol treatment and so on because those things aren’t offered most of the time to people on remand because the argument is [they] … aren’t sentenced and therefore can’t be forced to do programmes [so] … it’s not worth offering them to them.”

More secure medical and treatment facilities may be one way of dealing with this. That means more money in the short term.

Andrew Little was approached for comment, but his office said he would not speak about the bail issue until after a justice summit later this year.

Newshub (16 June 2018): ‘Everything is on the table for justice reform’ – Andrew Little

Justice Minister Andrew Little says “everything” is on the table when it comes to justice reform, including changes to bail, parole and sentencing laws.

Mr Little said that the current model “isn’t good enough” and the 60 percent reoffending rate within two years points to a “failure” in 30 years of punitive criminal justice policy.

“We will have to look at the parole act, the bail act, and the sentencing council – get some cohesion around our sentencing,

“But I think the real game changer is what we can do inside our prisons, and how we can make it systematic across our prison network.”

National’s Mark Mitchell has strongly criticised the Government’s proposed changes, particularly softening bail laws, saying that 98 percent of prisoners are ‘serious criminals’ who would be a danger if released.

The minister rejected that assertion, saying Mr Mitchell “has his figure wrong”.

“Over half the prisoners who enter the prison system in any one year are there for non-violent [offences], what I would characterise as ‘low-level’ offences.”

The minister says that of the criminals remanded in custody (those who are in prison awaiting trial or sentencing) 59 percent get a custodial sentence – but 41 percent do not.

With the number of prisoners on remand getting close to 2,000 this means about 800 of them will end up not being sentenced to prison. That’s a high number.

“The numbers alone tell you, we’ve calibrated our remand decision-making the wrong way. We are remanding too many in custody.”

That’s how it looks – but it can be difficult predicting which people arrested will end up in prison after conviction.

And it doesn’t take many ‘mistakes’ on bail for there to be high profile publicity – one violent assault would be enough to try to clamp down on bail.

Unfortunately bad crime happens despite the best efforts of the police, the justice system and the Minister of Justice and Parliament.

That justice summit could be interesting.