‘Coward’s punch’ law

Winston Peters announced last week that a ‘one-punch’ assault should be subject to a separate law.

‘King Hit’ Sentences Far Too Light

Perpetrators of “King hits” should be sentenced to a minimum of eight years if their victims are killed, says New Zealand First.

“We want to send a message. Land one of these cowardly punches, take a life, and you’re behind bars a long time,” New Zealand First Leader and MP for Northland Rt Hon Winston Peters said in a speech to the Police Association in Wellington today.

“There have been too many cases of innocent people dying from a ‘King hit’. Good people have been killed. Families and friends are suffering.

“The ‘King hit’ punch will be defined in law as ‘an event  that is unexpected and unprovoked but of such force to the head that it is likely to cause incapacitation, injury or death’.

“New Zealand First will ensure the length of the sentence will send a message that society will not accept this level of violence,” says Mr Peters.

Calling this type of assault a ‘king hit’ is a mistake. It’s a very cowardly sort of attack.

Is a special law for it necessary, beyond trying to appease a populist support base?

Manslaughter can already result in up to a life sentence, although now sometimes shorter sentences are given. Recently an Invercargill sentenced a ‘man’ to 22 months in prison. Would a longer sentence achieve anything?

Singling out one sort of assault could lead to anomalies in charging and sentencing.

Why is one punch worse than two punches? Two punches followed by a few kicks in the head? Driving a vehicle into a crowd?

Are one-punch sentences too light relative to other assaults? Or is singling them out a  knee-jerk reaction, or trying to appeal to the ‘lock-em-up crowd?

The Otago Daily Times looks at this policy in today’s editorial The full force of the law?

Mr Peters’ king-hit policy must be viewed with eyes wide open, however. This is already election season and the promises, baits, bribes and face-savers are coming in thick and fast: everything from more police, more houses and more affordable houses to less immigration and tax cuts. Crime and punishment is a favourite, and it is all too easy to promote policies which prey on fear and highlight retribution in order to make political mileage.

The jury is still out on the effectiveness of one-punch laws as a deterrent. Is our current legislation really not up to the task? There is undoubtedly debate around sentencing in some cases, but there are also serious questions over whether a one-size-fits-all hard-line approach is desirable. And, if attitudes towards alcohol and issues with anger are at the root of the problem, is such a policy anything more than an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff?

It is clear something needs to be done about alcohol-fuelled violence within our society. For years this newspaper has carried headlines which clearly show the prevalence of the problem, where nights out have resulted in bar fights and street brawls. Indeed, it sometimes seems this is the point of a night out for some.

Although a “quick fix” may be desirable, surely a holistic approach is more sustainable. Populist policy may tick the punishment box, but it doesn’t address the cocktail of other factors driving these crimes: alcohol availability and price, our culture of excess and permissiveness, our “hard-man” image, our focus on rights over responsibilities, and our latent anger and aggression.

All must surely be part of the mix if we are to make a meaningful difference – and help save lives.

Alcohol abuse and violence, especially when combined, is a very serious problem in New Zealand. It is deep rooted in our society, complex and  and difficult to deal with. Singling out one very narrow and infrequent type of assault may attract some votes but it is a very narrow, lazy, populist approach.

It will take a lot more than increasing sentences on specific occasional crimes to address mindless violence and alcohol abuse. Cowards who get pissed don’t care about the consequences for either themselves or their victims.

The message that Winston is sending will do little if anything to improve a problem. It looks like a cynical message to potential voters, not to thugs.