Hard News by Russell Brown

The next one

So it's law and order next for National. The Sensible Sentencing Trust has Don Brash as guest speaker at its next meeting in Auckland on July 4, and it appears that he will deliver a policy speech intended to have as much impact as the one at Orewa.

So what will be in it? National's Justice spokesman Tony Ryall has been dropping hints all over the place - can't help himself, poor love - that parole laws will be in the gun, most recently in this morning's Herald, where he promised changes to bail and parole laws and the 2002 Sentencing Act. In a speech to National's Northern regional conference last month he said that under the new policy, parole violators would be denied bail and be subjected to "random and regular drug testing".

But I'm given to understand that the big pitch in Brash's speech will be "no parole for serious offences". If that's the correct wording, it seems remarkably vague - but that's probably the idea. Ryall has been keen to raise the sorry case of the RSA murderer William Bell, who stayed at large to commit his crime despite two breaches of his parole conditions - and on that score, he absolutely has a point. If we're to apply conditions to these people, they must be enforced. I doubt that anyone disagrees with that.

The probation service, understaffed and stretched by strike action, made a terrible mistake in its handling of Bell, and it and the present government has to wear that. A judge recently reserved his decision after a damages case against the Crown brought by the husband of one of the RSA victims.

But Bell was sentenced for his last-but-one crime - an armed robbery - under the conditions of a law that National had nine long years to change. Since then, Phil Goff's 2002 Sentencing Act has raised the minimum non-parole period for the worst crimes from 10 to 17 years, with judges free to impose longer terms. Once they become eligible, the "worst offenders" no longer have the right to annual parole hearings, only every three years.

The old category of "serious violent offenders" - who were formerly automatically released after they had served two third of their setence - was scrapped, and such offenders can now be denied parole altogether. The range of offences to which preventive detention can be applied was broadened, and the lower age limit at which it applies lowered from 21 to 18. Judges were given a very strong steer on imposing maximum or near-maximum penalties. A new, better-qualified parole board was established and ordered for the first time to make community safety its paramount concern in decisions. The scope for reparation for victims was greatly increased, and judges now have to explain why if they do not order reparation.

So it's a harder law than anything we've seen before - but by way of balance, and to allow a distinction between, say, a mercy killing and a murder-robbery, the Sentencing Act allows for parole eligibility in some cases after only one third of the sentence has been served (this is already the rule for most offences). That's why you hear news reports say that "in theory" a particular killer could be out in what sounds like way-too-soon a time.

In a situation not unlike the flap over the Crimes Amendment (No 2) Bill, this provision has been highlighted by political opponents to depict the new law as soft overall. The case since in which it has attracted criticism is that of Haden Brown, a horribly disturbed man who bashed his mother and nearly killed her - Justice Salmon complained that the law didn't allow him to set a higher non-parole term. The law was amended after complaints from the Sensible Sentencing Trust, but not to the satisfaction of Stephen Franks and others, who were unhappy that it still allowed only a two-thirds non-parole time in such cases.

Don't expect that sort of detail to feature strongly in the debate after Brash announces the policy. Indeed, National's new policy will sound just fine in talkback land. Like the Treaty stance, it's a bit of a no-brainer in political terms. You'll probably also hear people declaring that violent crime is burgeoning - it's actually been basically flat for the last 10 years, while the overall offence rate has fallen steadily over that time. No, none of it's acceptable. But it would be nice if people occasionally knew what they were talking about.

Oh, and before we depart the topic, my lawyer friend pointed out that it would be useful amid all this getting hard to look at why the concept of parole was introduced to the corrections system in the first place: not least that it encourages convicts to spend their jail time in a co-operative and productive way. Giving them nothing to lose might have unintended consequences.

Anybody else watch State of the Nation last night? It was basically depressing, but the format dictated it could hardly be otherwise. Getting together a bunch of ordinary folks with varying degrees of a handle on the facts and expecting them to create illumination on live TV was always going to be ambitious. It was a big call to bring Anita McNaught over from her lovely life in England and ask her to preside over some angry - and in some cases plain stupid - people, but she did her best, as did Kerre Woodham and Robert Rakete, with Rakete probably the surprise standout. I don't know if Maori-versus-Pakeha was ever going to be a useful format. Anyway, Greg Dixon thought it was mostly dull (I actually thought the room looked bloody cold), but the experts approved.

Several readers have pointed out that New Zealand does have its own online searchable Hansard, even if it lack some of the bells and whistles of the British version.

Holly Walker from Critic points to the magazines story on possible Maxim Institute plans for a conservative student magazine. The comments from Maxim's Scot McMurray about a lack of editorial balance and debate in the current student rags is pretty rich.

Human Rights Watch's report, The Road to Abu Ghraib, which presents evidence that the Pentagon and the Bush White House explored ways of making the US, literally, an international outlaw by circumventing the Geneva Conventions relating to torture.

Global military spending climbed 11 per cent to $US965 billion in 2003, with just short of half of it being made by the US. Next most angry was Japan, with five per cent of the total spend.

Minor editing changes department: the US State Department is making alterations to its Patterns of Global Terrorism report, which is now expected to say that the level of international terrorism is the highest in 20 years. Funny thing is, the original report claimed that in 2003 serious terrorism was at its lowest in 34 years, amid what appeared to be an implication that the war on terror was working nicely thanks. Cursor.org found the Google archive of the original.

And so, to the sport. Fleming and Richardson stood up to be counted, McMillan and Astle failed, and it'll probably all turn to custard eventually anyway. Yamis at Blogging It Real compiled an insightful look at how New Zealand batsmen's averages look if you remove their top three scores. He probably should get out more in Korea.

Then there's the rugby. I can't bring myself to pick England, even though the form of recent years suggest that would be the prudent call. Surprisingly, the bookies all seem to feel that way too. All I really know is that I'll be watching the game and then going to watch Dimmer play at the Safari Lounge. Shayne's doing it for the kids ...