Election 2023: National wants limits on judges' discretion during sentencing

A National Government would limit judges' ability to use their discretion to reduce a convicted criminal's sentence, Christopher Luxon has announced.

The National leader has used his keynote address at the party's conference to announce the policy, which would see judges limited to reducing sentences by no more than 40 percent from the starting point.

"Any more than that undermines the purpose and impact of the sentence and undermines the public’s faith in the courts," Luxon said.

During the sentencing stage of the court process, judges come to a 'starting point' for a convicted criminal's sentence. They consider aggravating and mitigating factors related to their crime. Additional factors like the offender's plea, prior criminal record and displays of remorse are also taken into account. 

This gives judges discretion to apply discounts and uplifts to a criminal's sentence, but National believes judges should only be able to go so far.

"Granting judges some discretion to apply sentence reductions in this way accounts for the unique circumstances of each case and prevents unjust outcomes that may result from overly rigid requirements," the party policy document said.

"However, when offenders receive multiple sentence discounts, one after another, sentences can deviate significantly from the intended punishment."

Luxon said victims and the public risk losing faith in the justice system when criminals receive "hefty discounts".

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

He gave the example of a 19-year-old who got a 60 percent sentence reduction. The person carried "a knife, kicked down the front door of a pregnant woman, assaulted her and kidnapped another person".

"The sentencing starting point was eight years and six months, but it was reduced to three years and five months," he said.

Christopher Luxon speaking on Sunday.
Christopher Luxon speaking on Sunday. Photo credit: Getty Images.

National also believes offenders should only be given discounts for their youth or for remorse once. 

If they go on to re-offend after previously receiving a discount, "they should not be eligible to receive a sentence reduction for the same factor a second or subsequent time".  

This is being called a "use-it-and-lose-it rule" which would be written into the Sentencing Act alongside the maximum sentence discount of 40 percent.

National's 'Real Consequences for Crime' package also includes:

  • Restoring the Three Strikes law repealed by Labour

  • Making gang membership an aggravating factor in sentencing

  • Removing taxpayer funding for cultural reports and redirecting the money into supporting victims, including into counselling and transport to attend courts

  • Allowing remand prisoners to access programmes currently available only to sentenced prisoners

"A National government will ensure the justice system holds offenders accountable through sentences that better reflect the seriousness of a crime, denounce criminal behaviour and show the public that justice is being done," Luxon said.

"We'll also give more support to victims, put more focus on prisoners’ rehabilitation and drop the prisoner reduction target."

National's corrections spokesperson Mark Mitchell said rehabilitation programmes play a crucial role in reducing re-offending rates.

"However, a significant proportion of prisoners in New Zealand cannot access the most effective rehabilitation programmes due to being on remand - held in custody awaiting trial or sentencing," he said.

"Although remand prisoners can enrol in life skills courses like parenting or money management, they are not eligible for more effective offence-based rehabilitation programmes, which address the underlying causes of serious offences."

He said of 29 rehab programmes in New Zealand, just three are available to remand prisoners.

"To ensure more prisoners receive rehabilitation, National will extend eligibility for all rehabilitation programmes to remand prisoners so that we can support more offenders toward productive and positive pathways," said Mitchell.

"If an offender is willing to work hard and turn their life around, National will support them."

These are the latest in a series of law and order policies announced by National over the past year. They have included sending serious youth offenders to military academies and banning gang insignia in public places.

Last weekend, National announced it would make gang membership an explicit aggravating factor in the Sentencing Act, regardless of whether the crime is related to the offender's gang activity or not.

In response, Labour's Police spokesperson Ginny Andersen said National's policy was just a "reheat" of what it took to the 2020 election, making it a "pretty lazy" move.

"National has got the policy microwave set on reheat," she said in a statement.

"The law as it stands says sentencing must take into account being in a gang or organised crime group as an aggravated factor in sentencing. National are simply proposing a technical tweak."