Reduced sentences for methamphetamine dealers who can prove addiction caused offending

Methamphetamine dealers could have their sentences reduced by up to 30 percent if they can prove addiction caused their offending, the Court of Appeal has ruled.

On Monday the 'Jing Yuan Zhang and others v The Queen' ruling was released, introducing a new guideline for judges tasked with sentencing people convicted of importation, manufacturing and supplying meth. It comes after the Court signalled in December it would reconsider aspects of the landmark R v Fatu case.

In a significant change to drug crime sentencing in New Zealand, poverty and addiction will now be considered potential mitigating factors. Since 2005, the single most significant factor in sentencing was the quantity of meth involved.

The Court considered three issues related to current sentencing practices: the role of the defendant in meth dealing, the defendant's relevant personal circumstances (especially addiction) and the desire for minimal sentences for meth offenders. 

"Due regard to role enables sentencing judges properly to assess the seriousness of the conduct and the criminality involved, and thereby the culpability inherent in the offending," the judgment reads. 

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 judgment urges judges to use discretion when sentencing defendants in cases "where culpability is truly low". Lawyers and judges are also encouraged to take advantage of section 25 of the Sentencing Act 2002, which allows sentencing to be delayed so offenders can go to rehab. 

The band structure to measure meth quantity has also been adjusted. There were previously 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."

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.