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Golriz Ghahraman, Green Party MP 18.09.22

Golriz Ghahraman writes about the repeal of the Three Strikes law and the hopes she has for our justice system.

"Last month, one of the most harmful and needlessly punitive laws on our justice books was finally binned, after long campaigns by groups ranging from human rights advocates, academics, Maori, and lawyers on both sides of the Criminal Bar. The Three Strikes Law was a hangover from National & ACT's failed American-style approach to justice..."

The ‘Three Strikes' law was a hangover from National and ACT’s failed American-style approach to justice.

What it did was to take away the court’s ability to consider the circumstances of offending, public interest and even rehabilitation, in sentencing people on their second or third appearances to prescribed maximum penalties. To put that into perspective, if a teenager committed two or three offences within a period of a couple of weeks, like demanding a school mate’s shoes with any level of implied or explicit threat, that would be aggravated robbery and the judge would have no choice but to sentence him to many years in prison (the maximum on third strike being 14 years). The judge would have no discretion in considering a previously untreated mental health issue, recent traumatic incident, family circumstances or even the views of victims.

That is what so-called ‘tough on crime’ policies look like on the ground. They are costly in every way, and do nothing to reduce crime or keep anyone safe.

We know why they get over the line. Episodes of gang violence and crime will be scary for whānau and our communities. But we can’t let politicians exploit that fear to take us backward. Granting police expanded powers, pouring resource into abusive prisons, is not going to address the problem that leads kids into gangs or keeps people safe. 

And fixing our justice system doesn’t stop at three strikes.

The truth is that we already know, based on numerous measures and studies, that our system is broken. It targets Maori, brown and black communities, the poor, and those with mental health challenges. One of the stats that sent chills down my spine as a new MP was that 89% of under-19 year olds who are locked up by our system are diagnosed with ‘serious learning disabilities’.

But the good news is that we also know both the things that have failed, like over-imprisonment and policing, as well as the actual underlying causes of offending – which means we have the solutions. They include accessible mental healthcare, addiction treatment, housing, and liveable income support. For the vast majority of young offenders, inclusive education is a crime prevention measure.

None of this is simple. It will take courage to have more complex conversation. It will take the will to resource community groups, mental health professionals and do things like raise benefits. The first step was acknowledging a failed approach with the Three Strikes repeal. The door is open for an alternative based on evidence and compassion.

Written by Golriz Ghahraman

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