Three strikes law: Lawyers say repeat offenders 'need help not punishment'

Lawyers are strongly opposing the Government's plan to bring back a revised version of the controversial three-strikes law. 

The Government says the law will punish offenders who continue to harm people, making it clear that repeat serious violent or sexual offending is not acceptable. 

However, the Criminal Bar Association said the legislation lacks evidence and is based on "arbitrary rules" that fail to take into account mental health, intellectual disability, youth and addiction.

The Government said it will introduce revised Three Strikes legislation which was implemented in 2010, but was scrapped under the previous Labour Government in 2021.  

Under the law, offenders were given three strikes, and after being convicted of a third serious offence, the offender would receive the maximum sentence without parole. 

It would cover the same 40 serious violent and sexual offences as the former legislation, with the addition of the new strangulation and suffocation offence. The law would also only apply to sentences above 24 months and would allow some judicial discretion to avoid very harsh outcomes and address outlier cases. 

Associate Justice Minister Nicole McKee made the announcement on Monday, alongside Prime Minister Christopher Luxon. The draft bill is expected to go before Cabinet in June and the bill will be introduced to the House soon after that. 

The law aims to deter offenders with the threat of harsh punishments for repeat offenders, primarily targeting serious violent and sexual offenders, and lock up those who continue to harm the community. 

However, the Criminal Bar Association (CBANZ) said New Zealand already has preventive detention, which acts as a strong deterrent for those who present a high risk to the community due to violent or sexual offending. 

"The Criminal Bar Association of New Zealand strongly opposes the proposed return of the three strikes regime. We repeat our call for criminal justice policy to be based on evidence, something the three strikes regime neglects to recognise – with no evidence that it either reduces crime or assists with rehabilitation," it said in a statement. 

One of New Zealand's highest-profile lawyers agreed the legislation doesn't work. 

Criminal defence lawyer Marie Dyhrberg KC told AM on Tuesday the legislation can't possibly deter people from crime. 

She said rather than the Government getting tough on crime, it should "get effective on crime". 

Dyhrberg said what really helps offenders is good rehabilitation programmes. 

"That's where I see the people change because these are people that don't get this benefit in prison, the programmes aren't there, and if somebody is on a long sentence, they don't get the programmes until towards the end of their sentence and they're ineffective," she told AM co-host Melissa Chan-Green. 

The CBANZ echoed this, stating the three-strikes regime ignores the reality that offenders often "need help not punishment". 

"These sentences therefore often ensure nothing more than release without rehabilitation," it said. 

The association said New Zealand already has a higher imprisonment rate than Australia or the UK, with 173 people per 100,000 in NZ, compared to 157 and 145 respectively. The rates are much lower in Canada, Ireland and Northern Ireland. 

The CBANZ added the cost of housing a prisoner is $193,000 per year, which means there will be an  "inevitable" increase in cost. 

However, the Coalition Government said bringing back a revised version of the law will recognise the harm caused to victims and communities. 

"We are making it clear that repeat serious violent or sexual offending is not acceptable in our society," McKee said. 

"New Zealanders are rightly concerned about violent crime in our country. Everyone in New Zealand has the right to feel safe in their homes, businesses and communities."