Abstract illustration of hands holding prison bars, on blue background.

Shame on Judge Sainsbury, shame on us all

The two week jail sentence handed out to the woman who breached isolation with her grieving children is an abomination, writes Leonie Hayden.

In a week where New Zealanders are celebrating the prison sentence of a monster who murdered 51 people, we all need to think hard about what we’re celebrating.

I choose to leave the celebrations to the victims and their families, those pillars of strength and resilience. The rest of us have no need to celebrate. Too many of us are complicit in creating the environment that made those murders possible. Every crappy Facebook comment about migrants and “terrorists” gave the gunman licence to do what he did. Racist police, discriminatory landlords, talkback listeners denigrating te reo Māori, “free speech” zealots who think their right to speak hatefully is more important than another’s right not to be threatened with murder, all added litres to the ocean of white supremacy that bore him to our shores.

I won’t celebrate because this week a judge reminded us that Māori are imprisoned at six times the rate of non-Māori when he handed a prison sentence to a mother-of-five who acted out of grief and desperation.

On Thursday, the woman who escaped managed isolation with three of her children to attend the tangi of their father was sentenced to 14 days in prison. They had returned a negative Covid-19 test and applied for a compassionate exemption with the support of iwi and Māori wardens, and been denied. Alternative arrangements to bring the tūpapaku to Hamilton were also denied. So out of desperation, they fled.

On the very same day she was sentenced, a man who escaped managed isolation to buy beer and wine in Hamilton was given only 40 hours of community service.

Of course, there should be consequences for breaching measures that are designed to keep us all safe. It’s a pact we made both informally and formally as a country to protect our vulnerable. Judge Noel Sainsbury could have chosen from a raft of punitive options – fines and penalties, community service, a suspended sentence, such as the one received by the Auckland woman who absconded from the Pullman Hotel. But instead Sainsbury chose the one that will punish her children most. He chose the one that will attach stigma and shame to their family, and will cause them to feel stress, fear and guilt. The one that is likely to affect their behaviour at school, and therefore their education outcomes and potentially their adult futures.

They watched their father take his last breaths via video link, and now they’re having their mother taken away.

Sainsbury’s sentence also puts their mother into a criminal justice system from which, unlike our quarantine facilities, it’s hard to escape.

Prison sentences have long tails; the ripples are felt for many years after the time is served. By putting her in a prison facility he has reduced her job prospects and her ability to rent to a home, areas where Māori and Pasifika are already at a disadvantage due to profiling.

We also know that this family travelled from Brisbane and so are now at much higher risk of falling prey to Australia’s brutal deportation policies (which it bases on nebulous “good character” grounds). Australia is expected to deport more than 15,000 New Zealanders over the next 10 years, most of whom grew up in Australia and have jobs and families there.

This sentence may prevent them from returning to Australia at all.

It also comes with a cost to the taxpayer of more than $4,500 – a sum that even as a fine would constitute a harsh penalty and deterrent, and is, in fact, higher than the maximum penalty for failing to comply with orders under the Covid-19 Public Health Response Act 2020.

What does Sainsbury hope it will achieve? Enough studies have shown that prisons don’t reduce criminal behaviour and in fact, increase the likelihood of recidivism. A 2013 study reported that “the impact of imprisonment was either non-existent or that imprisonment of offenders increased the likelihood that they would reoffend over the alternative – imposing a non-prison sentence”.

Prisons don’t work. High and maximum security offenders make up only 17% of the prison population. For the majority – security classified low or minimum security – it’s a treadmill of suffering and useless, punitive red tape that continues to do harm, especially for Māori, because our leaders don’t have the courage to admit it. They tear apart families.

That Sainsbury then had the gall to tell the mother her actions “did not accord with tikanga” is most insulting of all. There’s no tikanga in the Western legal system – rules imposed on a people who had their own laws and customs, and who required no prisons. A rigged game where one side was blindfolded and never told the rules. To utter that sentence from a seat of power where Pākehā have disenfranchised Māori of land and liberty for centuries is abominable .

The head of the Pūwhakamua rehabilitation programme, Billy Macfarlane, describes justice in te ao Māori as take/utu/ea. Issue, cost, resolution. Once an issue or conflict (take) has been identified, the utu refers to a mutually agreed upon cost or action that must be undertaken to resolve it, leading to eaA debt repaid. New Zealand’s criminal justice system is just take, take, take (please read that in both English and te reo) all the way back to the signing of Te Tiriti.

A two-week sentence isn’t a slap on the wrist. Throwing this woman and her family into that system, even for a short time, may have started them down a road from which there is no return. Sainsbury in his infinite wisdom should be more than aware of that.

Not only was this family denied compassionate exemption, they were also denied compassion. I won’t celebrate that.



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