Power on Q+A

Written By: - Date published: 10:51 am, May 17th, 2009 - 8 comments
Categories: law and "order" - Tags:

On Q+A this morning, Justice Minister Simon Power flew a kite on some possible changes to the justice system.

The first was raising the severity threshold at which defendants can elect trial by jury. Currently, if you are tried for a crime with a maximum sentence in excess of 3 months on prison you can elect to have a jury; Power wants to look at raising that to three years. He said that currently people were waiting a year for trial in district courts and this would cut out 1,000 jury trials a year. However, he could not give a figure on how much that would actually speed up trials (nor did he say how much faster a judge only trial is than a jury one or what percentage of just trials we are talking about eliminating here). It’s not something I’m reflexively against. The jury system has a lot of problems and other countries like Australia have higher thresholds.

The second change Power floated was allowing convictions (or dismissals) in absentia if defendants fail to turn up without good reason. OK, superficially it seems nice and ‘tough on crime’ and I don’t really see a big human rights issue if defendants just don’t bother showing up. However, the immediate thought is that, as with the government’s RMA reforms, this will actually lead to more court hearings as convictions in absentia are appealed on grounds that there was a good reason for the no-show. Again, Power failed to demonstrate any need for this measure because he couldn’t supply a number for how many cases would be affected per year and couldn’t identify how much time the court system would save on cases.

Finally, Power suggested fining lawyers and perhaps disallowing them from claiming legal aid if they tried to drag out thee trial process with vexatious hearings. Nothing wrong with that in principle but devil is the detail here – you have to be very careful to make sure you’re not infringing on the right to a fair trail and we should err on the side of that right. Once again, Power didn’t actually have any facts to show there is a large problem or that this is an effective solution to it. In fact, it would probably just opening up a whole new avenue for appeals and court cases. Laila Harre’s idea of a public defender’s office is much better. It removes the temptation to ‘clip the ticket’ on legal aid for lawyers by changing the incentives. But this government is ideologically opposed to government-based solutions, so I can’t see it happening.

It was interesting that when Power referred to the drivers of crime conference the only driver he came up with was alcohol. He’s not looking fundamental enough. You’ve got to ask why some people turn to substance abuse and others don’t. The real driver of crime is poverty. Unfortunately, Power doesn’t seem to have any plan for addressing that as a way to reduce crime.

Power’s ideas may well have merit but his inability to show any evidence of that is a worry and part of a trend in how his government governs. Call it faith-based policy – National believes its policies will work based on assumptions and doesn’t do the evidence gathering and modelling that you expect in good decision-making. Ultimately, all Power’s ideas are to make the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff more efficient. We won’t really see a reduction in crime (and the strain on the legal system) unless the government is willing to make poverty a law and order issue.
-Marty G

8 comments on “Power on Q+A”

  1. Ron 1

    Couldn’t agree more with your point about Power’s lack of evidence and the Tories governance model so far. It feels as though they’re simply enjoying throwing their weight around. I also see it in their demeanor – Judith Collins is a prime example – a sort of stroppy “now that I’m boss things are gonna change” attitude.
    Many of their “changes” will be simply the ideas they’ve generated over their gins and sav blancs. Without evidence those ideas are no better than the ones generated over a handle at my local.

  2. Al 2

    “You’ve got to ask why some people turn to substance abuse and others don’t. The real driver of crime is poverty.”

    And so why don’t we have to ask why some of those in poverty turn to crime and some don’t? Although many factors contribute to crime – alcohol and poverty fall into this list – it’s clear that you too are “not looking fundamental enough”. Fundamentally it is a choice: you can commit a crime or you can abide by the law. This is the issue we really have to address when looking to reduce crime. How can we make it harder to choose to commit a crime, and easier to abide by the law?

    To blame it all on poverty is not the key. Unless of course you mean a poverty of morals.

  3. Anita 3

    Marty G writes,

    The real driver of crime is poverty.

    That view makes you sound like a pākehā male hard line marxist who is blind to non-economic oppression and non-economic crime. Wealthy men beat their wives and children. Wealthy pākehā illegally discriminate against members of other ethnic groups.

    Crime is entangled with power imbalance and oppression: from the structural imbalance in who gets to define what is a “crime”, to criminal acts as a response to being oppressed, to criminal acts committed to oppress, through to the imbalanced enforcement, prosecution and punishment.

    Poverty is only one kind of oppression, wealth is only one kind of power.

  4. marco 4

    Interesting points, one thing though. Power is correct in identifying alcohol as a driver of crime. Eliminating alcohol fueled offences is impossible but initiating a significant decrease would free up police resources for tackling other offences. It would also decrease the need for emergency services and free up valuble funding in the health sector.
    Most alcohol fueled crime is committed in the younger age bracket and is spread across the socio-economic spectrum.

  5. If I were on trial I think I’d definitely prefer a judge than a jury. I’d be damn petrified there’d be some redneck on the jury who’d want to hang you. Therefore, I think the move by Simon Power to reduce the trials which end up being in front of a jury could be a good thing.

    • Graeme 5.1

      You’re already entitled to be tried by judge alone – at your request – for any offence with a maximum less than 14 years.

      This would just remove the right to request a jury for lower level offences.

  6. Greg 6

    “But this government is ideologically opposed to government-based solutions, so I can?t see it happening.” I wish it was.

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