The changes to bail brought in by the Bail Amendment Act 2013 simply 'reset' the bail law to a standard the public expect - and that should have already been in place. For many years, the New Zealand public had repeatedly expressed their outrage and deep concern at the extent of crime committed by offenders on bail. The fact the remand population has increased so significantly reflects just how lax the law used to be. We now have a new normal, and that is a good thing.
Between 2006 and 2010, 23 people were murdered by an offender out on bail. A further 21 were killed in a 'homicide-related' offence in that period. The 2012 murder of North Shore teenager Christie Marceau,by a man out on bail charged with kidnapping and sexually assaulting her, was the final straw in public consciousness. It was a case that embodied much of what was wrong with the system.
A petition to Parliament entitled "Christie's Law" was signed by about 58,000 people - ordinary New Zealanders - calling for Parliament to tighten the lax bail criteria that had been operating for many years. The public had had enough of offender-friendly bail laws that had played their part in countless and avoidable murders and other serious crimes committed by offenders on bail - most of whom were facing serious charges or with multiple prior convictions for violence or sexual offending. Submissions to the select committee were strongly in favour of tightening bail laws.
Finally parliament listened to public concern - to their great credit. The Bail Amendment Act 2013 had broad Parliamentary support. It was not divisive. Labour, National, NZ First, ACT and United Future all supported the changes - at all stages of the Bill. Members from both major parties spoke eloquently at all stages of the Bill in support, acknowledging the need to tighten up in this crucial area of our justice system.
The public deserves better than to have a major party back-flip barely four years after it was passed. The fact that the prison and remand population has now exceeded 10,000 is largely a reflection of the bail, sentencing and parole standards the public reasonably expect. Labour are treading down a dangerous path if they pursue a loosening of the bail law. Frankly, they will end up with blood on their hands if they pursue this path. Public safety doesn't come cheap, and the public are more than willing to pay the price to keep dangerous and recidivist offenders in prison awaiting trial.
Figures SST has obtained from Corrections shows that remand prisoners have on average 44 prior convictions - an extraordinary record of offending. So Judges are not lightly remanding accused persons with unblemished records. Those denied bail are hard core recidivists or those facing very serious charges.
The way to reduce the prison population without compromising public safety is to prevent offending, not reduce imprisonment. Any idiot can let 30% of the prison population out to save money. That's not smart on crime. That's reckless and stupid on crime. There are no silver bullets to reducing offending.
The challenge to all political parties is to redouble their efforts to address the drivers of criminal offending which include drug and alcohol addictions, mental health problems, poor educational achievement, dysfunctional upbringings, and all too often an inflated sense of entitlement on the part of offenders. That's smart on crime. And it is costly. But New Zealanders are willing to pay the price for both strong prison policy and strong rehabilitation policy. It's not an either-either choice.
Garth McVicar is the founder of the Sensible Sentencing Trust.