Amid a push from the government-leading Labour Party to repeal the country’s controversial Three Strikes law, the New Zealand Greens have announced their support for the move. In a communiqué released by Green Party representative and parliament member, Golriz Ghahraman, the party stated that they “have been pushing for the repeal of the Three Strikes law for a long time and [are] delighted that it’s finally happening.”

What is the Three Strikes Law?

Passed by parliament in March 2010, the Sentencing and Parole Reform Act 2010 – commonly referred to as the Three Strikes law – was created with the intention of “deterring repeat offenders [of violent crimes and sexual crimes] with the threat of progressively longer mandatory prison sentences,” and to “penalize those who continued to re-offend through a three-stage process.”

In order to do so, the law was designed in a way that would force courts to impose the “maximum applicable penalty without parole” on individuals who had already committed two “three strike” offences, “unless the court considered it would be manifestly unjust to do so.”

There are 40 specified “three strike” offences in the law – ranging from murder, sexual assault, and kidnapping; all the way to wounding with intent to injure and assault with intent to rob.

How it works

Upon being convicted for a first “three strikes” offence, the judge determines the sentence like they would in any other case. The offender’s access to parole and or early release is not affected, and they receive a warning about committing a second “three strike” offence.

Conviction for a second “three strike” offence is when the law kicks in. This time, the offender’s sentence is once again decided by the judge, however, parole and/or early release are now off the table. The defendant is thus forced to serve their entire sentence without any possibility of parole or early release, unless the court deems the sentence to be “manifestly unjust.”

If an offender commits a third qualifying offence, the court has no say left in sentencing. The judge must, by law, impose the “maximum sentence available in law,” to be served “in full, without any parole or early release,” unless doing so would be “manifestly unjust.”

In the over ten years since the law was passed, there have been only 23 cases in which a judge was forced to dole out the maximum sentence for a third “third strike” offence. In almost all of these instances, the judge has used the manifestly unjust loophole to allow parole.

Problems with the Three Strikes law

While the law was put into place in order to reduce violent and sexual crime, there is “no substantial evidence” to show that it has done that. Furthermore, research has found that Maori and Pasifika are “overrepresented in the group of offenders who have received a strike.

While only 16.5% of the population of New Zealand is Māori, as of 2018, 48% of offenders who had received a strike warning were Māori. According to Ghahraman, these numbers show that the law “has led to grossly unfair results that have disproportionately impacted Māori, including much harsher sentences than would have been imposed.” “We know that our justice system disproportionately targets Māori, other communities of colour, those with mental health and addiction issues and brain injuries,” she added.

Additional concerns surrounding the law include its potential link to an increase in the country’s prison population, as well as the fact that its imposed sentences restrict “the judiciary’s ability to consider the individual circumstances and context of the offending when determining sentences.”

According to Ghahraman, repealing the Three Strikes law would be a huge first step in bringing New Zealand “a justice system that treats all people with humanity, dignity and respect.

“It is shameful that New Zealand has one of the highest imprisonment rates in the developed world despite mounting evidence that mass incarceration has failed to bring down rates of crime, keep communities safe, or rehabilitate those in our system,” she says.

The NZ Greens hope to partner with the Labour Party to continue to reform the country’s justice system and “create a system that recognizes the mana inherent in all people and communities.”

Jules Ownby

Jules is an investigative journalist and podcast producer from Montreal, Canada. His areas of interest are the politics of the Americas as well issues surrounding immigration.

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