Changes to sentencing of methamphetamine dealers welcomed by law experts

Changes to how methamphetamine dealers are sentenced are being welcomed by criminal law experts.

On Monday, a Court of Appeal ruling introduced new guidelines for judges tasked with sentencing people convicted of importation, manufacturing and supplying meth. Significantly, poverty, addiction and mental health will now be considered as potential mitigating factors.

The Court ruled that "addiction shown to be causative of the offending" may justify a lesser sentence of up to 30 percent. If this is the case, addiction may need to be considered in combination with potential concurrent mental health issues, and judges should consider including some element of rehabilitative treatment during sentencing. 

The move has been welcomed by Len Anderson, the president of the New Zealand Criminal Bar Association. 

"There has been much more recognition in recent times of the importance of tailoring the sentence to the individual circumstances," he told Newshub.

"If you had somebody who was an addict, who was selling a little bit of methamphetamine in order to support their habit, they should be dealt with more sympathetically, particularly if they are interested in getting treatment." 

The New Zealand Bar Association (NZBA) is also praising the decision, with James Rapley QC saying it recognises addiction as a health concern.

"Courts now have a greater flexibility when sentencing for this kind of offending, and judges can now take into account a range of personal factors in drug sentencing and consider more rehabilitative," Rapley said in a statement via the NZBA.

"This is important because it reflects a greater awareness that methamphetamine addiction is a serious health concern that cannot be addressed by traditional ways of punishment."

The lawyer said the move shouldn't be seen as going easy on drug offending. 

"The decision is about assessing the real culpability in each case and it reflects the need to find more effective ways of dealing with serious drug offending," he said.

"Those who are involved at the very top levels, where there is commerciality, involvement by organised crime or exploitation of others, will still be dealt with severely and receive lengthy terms of imprisonment."

The changes are intended to focus more on people getting rich from supplying or selling meth, and away from addicts who play less of an active role in dealing and may have been pushed into offending due to personal circumstances like poverty and addiction. 

The Court of Appeal's ruling comes after the Court signalled in December it would reconsider aspects of the landmark R v Fatu case. 

Since 2005, the single most significant factor in sentencing was the quantity of meth involved.

Previously, there were four 'Fatu' bands corresponding to different sentences for different amounts. Anyone convicted of dealing more than 500g of meth was automatically placed into the most serious band, with a minimum sentence of 10 years and a maximum of a life sentence. 

The defendant's personal circumstances might allow them to be moved toward the upper or lower limits of their band, but they could not change bands once convicted. 

The new judgment has changed the structure to include five 'Zhang' bands, each of which carries a lighter sentence than previous versions. 

"A more limited measure of engagement in criminal dealing deserves a less severe sentence than a significant or leading role." the judgment reads.

"Diminished role in drug-dealing offending may result in a defendant moving not only within a band - as currently happens or is supposed to happen under Fatu - but also between bands."