2. Three strikes and you're out

Justice Minister Andrew Little fronts media during an embarrassing back down on his three strikes plan. Photo: Shane Cowlishaw

An embarrassing back down has made the Government’s planned justice reforms even more difficult and illustrated just how politically sensitive the issue can be. Shane Cowlishaw reports.

It doesn’t take much in politics to bring your race car to a screeching halt.

Early on Monday morning Formula 1 driver Brendon Hartley wasn’t the only New Zealander slamming into the wall, as Justice Minister Andrew Little announced he didn’t have the support to repeal the Three Strikes law.

The Sentencing and Parole Reform Act of 2010 was drafted by former Act MP David Garrett and supported by National. Violent offenders found guilty of a third offence receive the maximum penalty in prison with no parole.

Critics argue the law does more harm than good and in November, shortly after taking on the Justice portfolio, Little announced he would scrap it.

The former Labour Party leader has made a remarkable political recovery since stepping aside for Jacinda Ardern and has been one of the most active ministers, boldly planning major changes to the justice sector.

But late last month he made a critical error, going public with his plans to take a paper scrapping the three strikes law to Cabinet.

That was due to happen on Monday, but before Cabinet met Little realised New Zealand First would not be lending its support and he was forced to withdraw the proposal.

In recent interviews, Little has been heavily pushing an upcoming criminal justice summit where the public could debate the issues and long-term solutions could be found.

Leaving the Three Strikes decision until a broader picture had formed could have given him a much-needed mandate.

Instead, his early reveal led to media stories focusing on victims of serious crime and provided an easy out for traditionally tough-on-crime New Zealand First.

Calling a press conference in the first few hours after a two-week parliamentary recess break was a bad look for the coalition government and a free hit for the opposition, with Simon Bridges calling the situation a mess and the Government amateurs.

Ardern tried her best to cover for Little, claiming it was better to wait for a broader package or reforms rather than take a piecemeal approach but did acknowledge her minister had jumped the gun: “It’s always better to wait until Cabinet decisions are made.”

As an excuse, Little said he had received some indication of support from New Zealand First, but that had changed after MPs had a chance to “pause and reflect”.

He stood by his judgement and said there was still a commitment to change.

“I think it’s pretty clear this Government is totally committed to criminal justice reform, it’s going to happen.”

What this mistake has shown is just how difficult those reforms will be.

Criminal justice reform is hotly debated, but both sides are in agreement that broader discussion is needed to guide politicians in their decisions.

Tania Sawicki Mead, director of criminal justice reform group JustSpeak, said she was well aware of the challenges in pushing through such ambitious reforms, but Monday's events were still disappointing.

“I think that essentially this is politicians’ previous lives peddling tough on crime anti-evidence policy coming back to bite them and I think it’s really sad they’re not willing to reckon with their own role in perpetuating mistruths.”

What the situation did show was the need to do the groundwork to understand what the community’s concerns were and engage in conversation.

While it was also important to not minimise the feelings of victims, media attention on the most horrific crimes left a gap in reporting on the many people who were being ground down by New Zealand’s punitive justice system, she said.

“In the absence of any work to encourage people to understand why the things we’re doing in criminal justice are actually increasing the prison population and making us less safe and feel less safe, it’s not surprising that there are political parties who feel like they don’t have support to change the law.”

Victim advocate Ruth Money also agreed that a broad debate on reform was needed.

“With respect to all the MPs I’ve dealt with, they’re so out of touch. You can’t make these decisions without the help of people who are working in the system.”

She said data could be manipulated by both sides and while there were problems with the three strikes law it was not something that should be “thrown out with the bathwater”.

“At the end of the day I think we’re starting at the wrong place. We’re starting at offenders but I think we should be starting at public safety.”