Tova O'Brien: Justice reform is needed but an angry minister doesn't help the case

OPINION: Our prisons are in crisis and New Zealand is in desperate need of justice reform, but the Government has a major obstacle getting its changes across the line.

That's you. 

All it will take is one heinous crime and public perception will come down hard on the need to revert to 'lock 'em up', tough on crime measures. 

Documents obtained by Newshub Nation show the Government's developing a plan to reassure the public if there's a high-profile crime that could derail its reforms.

This is where other countries attempting prison reform have failed. 

Police, the Ministry of Justice and Corrections warn: "Countries that have been unsuccessful at reducing their prisoner populations failed to convince the public of the benefit of the reforms, and/or serious events influenced public opinion resulting in the reversal of reforms."

Tova O'Brien: Justice reform is needed but an angry minister doesn't help the case
Photo credit: Newshub.

The Justice Minister's panic last night after Newshub revealed details of his reforms shows just how worried the Government is about this. 

In two weeks the three strikes law will be repealed (it goes to Cabinet, kicking off the repeal process) as well as sentencing changes that will encourage home detention for less serious crimes, changes to electronic monitoring and reviving Labour's Sentencing Council which was axed by National because it thought it was unnecessary bureaucracy.

Andrew Little held an emergency media briefing after Newshub at 6pm to ensure the messaging around his reforms was just how he wanted it.

He was particularly concerned around the framing of the Sentencing Council and Newshub saying it's a council that offers guidance to judges to prevent tougher sentences. 

Little thinks that's outrageous BS, but the initial advice from the Law Commission when Labour first started work on the council in 2006 makes clear the need for consistency in sentencing to control prison muster. 

"A council is the only vehicle that can address all of the necessary issues... and shorter sentences to compensate for our proposed parole reforms".

Basically, the Law Commission wanted parole reforms that would mean prisoners spent more time in prison before being paroled. That would cause a further spike in prisoner numbers, so it wanted a Sentencing Council to balance prisoner numbers by setting guidelines that would prevent tougher sentences. 

"Sentences imposed in court will need to be around 25 percent shorter", the Law Commission said at the time.

Labour has promised to lower the prison population by 30 percent with sweeping reforms. 

Little acknowledges that all it could take is one person being killed by someone on bail - like Christie Marceau - to unravel the reforms. 

He says he's not going to reform justice in a mad rush just to get the numbers right because he wants communities and victims to feel safe; that means talking to the public, explaining the reforms and having open debate. 

I couldn't agree more. Our prisons are in crisis. We need reform and people need to know exactly what that means.

My advice to Andrew Little is don't get so 'Angry Andy' if you don't like the way people talk about your reforms - that's part of healthy debate.

Tova O'Brien is Newshub's political editor.

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