Election 2023: Labour brands National's new policy 'egregious overreach' of politicians over judges

National's newly announced policy of limiting judges' ability to reduce criminals' sentences is being branded an "egregious overreach" by Labour.

Kiri Allan, Labour's justice spokesperson, said politicians should trust the judiciary to do its job and she's confident the Sentencing Act is "fit for purpose".

National leader Christopher Luxon says the party does trust judges, but there needs to be a balance between giving them discretion and reassuring the public that criminals will face "fair sentences" that are "appropriate to the crimes that are committed".

The party believes it's the right of parliamentarians to send a "clear message" that there should be a limit on the discounts offered to criminals during the sentencing process.

The 'Real Consequences for Crime' policy document was released by the National Party on Sunday at its annual conference. 

It includes policies like only allowing judges to reduce offenders' sentences by 40 percent from their starting point, restoring Three Strikes, ending taxpayer-funded cultural reports and re-directing funds to victim support, and expanding rehabilitation process to remand prisoners.

National thinks tougher sentences are required to hold offenders accountable and show the public that "justice is being done".

The party presented examples of offenders receiving significant reductions to their sentences due to a range of factors, like a guilty plea, their youth, and willingness to receive treatment. In one case, an offender received an 85 percent reduction to their sentence.

"Victims and the public risk losing faith in the justice system when criminals receive such hefty discounts to their sentences that they don't reflect the harm caused," Luxon said.

"Putting a maximum limit on sentence reductions strikes the right balance between denouncing criminal behaviour and allowing judges' discretion."

But Labour's Allan believes the policy of limiting judges' discretion will have constitutional lawyers' heads spinning and is calling it an "egregious overreach".  

"I think it's quite egregious that parliamentarians are trying to impinge upon the judiciary in that sense. We trust them to do their job. But that particular component felt like quite an overreach."

She said she reviews the Sentencing Act frequently and believes it is "fit for purpose". 

"There is a big reason for why there's so much discretion held by the judiciary, they see far more than you and I will ever see. That's essentially part of the trust that we have to have in the judicial system. Politicians should not be sentencing people."

Speaking to media after his policy announcement, Luxon said National wanted to ensure there was a balance between judges having the ability to consider every single case and make discounts to sentences, with ensuring the public is "actually getting fair and sensible sentencing".

He said National did trust the judiciary. 

"We do, but we're just making sure we find the balance to be able to give them the amount of discretion that they need to adjust to each and every case and to get the right sentence in place. 

"But equally we need to make sure the public can see that there are fair sentences that are appropriate to the crimes that are committed."

National's justice spokesperson Paul Goldsmith said the party consulted with former judges and others in the legal sector when forming the policy and there's a "range of views".

"Some people want to have maximum discretion. What we're saying is that it's appropriate to have judicial discretion. But we want to put a limit on that at 40 percent because we want to send a clear message that serious crime has serious consequences in this country." 

Goldsmith said it was appropriate for Parliament to set limits around sentencing and send a "clear message".

"It's important that people see that sentences are not just about sending people to prison. It's about a society denouncing the act, and also keeping the community safe."

With National's policy likely leading to longer time in prison for offenders, Luxon was asked how much more it would cost to house them.

He didn't put an exact figure on it, and the party couldn't say how many cases could be affected by the proposed changes. 

"So for us, it's very simple," Luxon said. "There's enough in the existing budgets. There's enough capacity in the prison system. And if we need more, we'll do that under future budgets."

National's corrections spokesperson Mark Mitchell said it was difficult to currently model how much it would cost to implement the policy as the party has other proposed measures in the gangs and youth crime space that may lead to more people entering the corrections system.

"We've got those policies there that are yet to be rolled out. We can't anticipate how many people will come back into Corrections. We do know that there probably be a slight uptick because we are serious about it," Mitchell said.

"In terms of the cost per prisoner, there's an enormous human cost to having these people out on the streets and creating more victims."

Allan hit out at National's plan being uncosted and said that if there was a 20 percent increase to the prison population - which sits at about 8294 - and it cost $193,000 per year to house a prison, the policy could cost more than $300 million.

"The numbers don't add up. I think that's what all New Zealanders will be asking. When they're reading this policy. It's easy to throw banter around."

National also wants to stop taxpayers paying for cultural reports for offenders. It would continue to allow the court to hear from someone known to the offender.

Luxon said a "thriving cottage industry" had emerged for cultural reports and $20 million had been spent over four years on them. That money would be allocated towards victim support under National, he said. 

Allan said further thought could be given to how these are funded. There has been a heavy reliance in recent years on "written thesis", she said, and businesses have popped up to "that I want to test that they actually add value". She said there is a range of different quality reports.

On National's proposal to extend rehabilitation services to remand prisoners, Allan said a Bill has been introduced by the Government to address that.