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OPINIONPoliticsMarch 10, 2020

This first responders protection bill is about vengeance, not justice

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A minimum six month sentence for intentionally injurious assaults on prison officers or first responders does nothing to address the reasons why such crimes take place, writes Aaron Hendry.

What sort of justice system do we want in this country? That is the question that NZ First MP Darroch Ball’s Protection for First Responders and Prison Officers bill brings into focus. The bill would introduce a six month minimum prison sentence for anyone who injures a first responder or prison officer with intent. The maximum prison sentence would be ten years.

The bill highlights the fact that assaults against first responders are far too common, and that many of the courageous people who do these difficult and necessary jobs live in fear that they will be harmed in the line of duty.

In his submission to the Justice Select Committee yesterday, Darroch Ball claimed that the increase in assaults is due to a lack of respect: a lack of respect for the uniform, for the position that the uniform represents, and for the community at large. An attack on a prison officer, or a paramedic, is thus an attack on all of us. The people who choose to cause harm to them must be sent a strong and decisive message: this behaviour will not be tolerated.

And yet those who opposed the bill argue that regardless of the law’s intent, the message will not be heard. Why? Because harsh penalties do not deter these sorts of crimes.

As Robert Moore of Anglican Action put it in his submission, “it would be an extreme minority of individuals who would be sitting around at home, planning to go out and assault a first responder”. These crimes are not the result of a cold, calculated decision – they are the result of trauma, mental illness, and extreme levels of mental torment. People who reacted in a moment of distress.

Victoria University professor Chris Marshall is a leading expert in the field of crime, punishment and restorative justice. He rejects the idea that harsh punishments help prevent violent crimes. Such crimes are more often than not committed by people who live chaotic lives and who, in the moment the crime is committed, are unable to measure the consequences of their actions and the future risks for them and for others.

And thus, the bill fails at its first hurdle: to act as a deterrent.

The majority of people who commit these types of crimes aren’t going to decide against doing them because, in the moment, they aren’t making decisions at all. Slapping a mandatory prison sentence on them will do nothing to stop these crimes occurring.

In fact, Marshall goes on to warn, a society that becomes used to enacting harsh punishments inevitably creates an environment in which violence thrives. Prison is a breeding ground for violence, eventually returning that violence back to our streets once the prisoner is released.

And so, instead of keeping first responders and prison officers safe, this bill will do damage – not only to the individuals who are sent to prison, but also to our entire community. And it will put our first responders at greater risk. For once the individual returns to the community, further traumatised and thus more at risk of reoffending, it is the first responders who attend when they or their whanau are again in need of their assistance.

And so why persist with it? It seems clear that this bill is not really about protecting first responders. There appears to be no provisions within it aimed at preventing assault from occurring in the first place. And as we’ve examined, harsh penalties only increase the risk to our communities. Nor is this bill about making certain that there are appropriate provisions within the law in order to deal with criminals who intentionally target our first responders. As justice minister Andrew Little pointed out at the first reading of the bill – and as the Law Society echoed in their submission to the select committee – these provisions already exist within the Crimes Act. I won’t name each of the relevant provisions here, but the penalties range from between five and 14 years imprisonment.

New Zealand’s prison population is one of the highest per capita in the world. Image: Toby Morris, The Side Eye: ‘Tough on Crime’ is Dead

So then, why would NZ First introduce this bill? I can’t help but wonder if it has more to do with NZ First wanting to assert themselves as the party of law and order than it does with stopping the crimes themselves.

Because, if we’re honest, this bill is not about protecting anyone.

It is about revenge. About making people suffer harm, for the harm they have caused to others.

If that is what it’s about, then that’s fine. If that is the type of justice system we want, then that’s also fine. But, let’s at least be honest.

And at the very least, let’s admit that this approach to justice is not about the victims. Because if it was, we would be looking for solutions that prevented victims from being created in the first place.

No, this is about our misguided sense of justice. An antiquated idea that people who do wrong, should have wrong done to them in return. The inherent problem with that approach is that an eye for an eye leaves us both half blind. A point proven over the last several years by our growing prison population, and overburdened justice system our society has created.

Is this what we want for Aotearoa? A justice system that chooses punishment over mercy, revenge over justice? And thus continues a cycle of violence that inevitably harms each and every one of us?

There is an alternative.

Instead of pouring our energy into increasing the state’s power to avenge victims, we should be diverting our resources into remaking our system into one that heals victims, and restores those who commit crime to healing and wholeness, with an eye to prevention rather than punishment. Because if we want to protect our first responders, then we need to improve the conditions in which they work. Which means taking seriously the impact of colonisation on our nation, the impact of underfunded and under supported mental health and addiction services, the impact of poverty, and the impact of a justice system that only further harms and traumatizes those who interact with it.

We will not end this cycle of violence until we grapple seriously with these issues.

We cannot keep building prisons forever. And as long as our mindset is one of revenge, we will keep creating the environment in which they are necessary.

The justice system we choose to create speaks volumes about who we are as a people, and who we want to be.

We can choose another way.

A petition against the Protection for First Responders and Prison Officers bill can be signed here.

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