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In a bid to address rising crime rates and the persistent challenge of recidivism among violent offenders, the National-led coalition government has taken a bold step by announcing the reintroduction of the Three Strikes legislation. This move, spearheaded by the new National-led coalition government, aims to send a resolute message that serious violent or sexual offenses will not be tolerated in New Zealand society. The party had campaigned on the reintroduction of the legislation at the recent election.

The decision to reinstate the Three Strikes law comes after its repeal during the tenure of the Labour administration, which cited concerns over disproportionately harsh sentences and doubts about its efficacy as a deterrent. National and Act, the parties responsible for the law’s creation during their previous term in government, opposed its repeal and vowed to reinstate it if elected.

The resurgence of violent crime and the troubling trend of repeat offenses since the law’s repeal have prompted a re-evaluation of New Zealand’s approach to criminal justice. The previous iteration of the Three Strikes law, introduced by the previous National-Act Government, faced criticism for its rigid application and perceived injustices, particularly in cases where minor offenses triggered severe penalties. Critics argued that mandatory sentencing undermined judicial discretion and disproportionately affected marginalised communities, including Māori and Pacific peoples.

In response to these concerns, the revised legislation includes several amendments aimed at addressing the shortcomings of its predecessor. These adjustments seek to strike a delicate balance between deterring repeat offenders and ensuring that sentencing remains fair and proportionate. The revised law will encompass the same 40 serious violent and sexual offenses as its predecessor. Key changes, however, include extending the use of the “manifestly unjust” exception to allow judicial discretion, ensuring that minor offenses are not disproportionately punished, and limiting the law’s application to sentences above 24 months.

Also, the inclusion of a new offence related to strangulation and suffocation reflects the government’s commitment to addressing evolving forms of violence in society. By expanding the scope of the legislation to encompass emerging threats, policymakers hope to stay ahead of criminal trends and better protect communities from harm.

Despite these efforts, the reintroduction of the Three Strikes law has sparked a polarised debate within Kiwi society. Proponents argue that stricter measures are necessary to hold repeat offenders accountable and protect victims from further harm. Victims’ advocates have voiced support for the legislation, emphasising the importance of deterrence in preventing future offences and providing closure to those affected by crime

However, critics contend that mandatory sentencing measures like Three Strikes fail to address the root causes of criminal behaviour and risk exacerbating existing disparities within the criminal justice system. Concerns have been raised about the potential impact on marginalised communities, as well as the removal of judicial discretion in sentencing.

Roger Brooking, a prominent criminologist, argues that Three Strikes legislation is inherently flawed and fails to act as a deterrent for offenders, particularly those with mental health issues or neurodiversity. He highlights the risk of “manifestly unjust” outcomes and warns against the erosion of judicial independence in the pursuit of punitive measures.

In light of these divergent viewpoints, the reintroduction of the Three Strikes law represents a delicate balancing act between justice and deterrence. As the bill progresses through the legislative process, policymakers must carefully consider the implications of their decisions and strive to strike the right balance between accountability, fairness, and effectiveness in the criminal justice system.

Internationally, empirical evidence on the effectiveness of Three Strikes laws in deterring crime is mixed, with some studies suggesting minimal impact on recidivism rates. There are cases where such laws have resulted in unexpected outcomes, such as overcrowded prisons and strained resources for rehabilitation and reintegration programmes and initiatives. As countries grapple with these complexities, ongoing research and analysis are crucial for understanding the true impact of Three Strikes legislation on crime prevention and public safety.

The government will have to carefully unpack the pros and cons of the rejigged law in the coming months.

First appeared in the Indian Weekender of 24 April 2024