New Zealand Labor repeals three-strikes law, says it led to “absurd” verdicts

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New Zealand’s Labor government has repealed the controversial “three strikes” law in which a mentally ill man was sentenced to seven years in prison for trying to kiss a stranger in the street.

The law, introduced by the previous National-led government, forced judges to automatically give the maximum sentence to all criminals who had committed three serious sex, violent or drug offenses in their lifetime – regardless of the time frame of the offending, the judge’s discretion, or other mitigating factors.

Labor had promised to repeal the law, which it said was “ineffective” and responsible for “absurd outcomes”.

The Justice Minister, Kiritapu Allan, said at the repeal that the three strikes law was “a knee-jerk reaction to crime” that resulted in disproportionate and excessive sentences.

– There was no evidence that it worked. It failed to act as a deterrent to offenders, it failed taxpayers, and it failed victims because it kept them in the system longer,” she said.

Allan noted that judges still retained the power to issue lengthy sentences and could impose the same restrictions as provided by the three-strikes law “in appropriate cases”.

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In one of the most high-profile New Zealand cases, Daniel Clinton Fitzgerald was sentenced to seven years in prison, after being convicted in 2018 of trying to kiss a woman in a Wellington street without her permission. At the time, the judge indicated that the circumstances of Fitzgerald’s offending would not ordinarily result in jail time, but his hands were tied by the law. The Supreme Court overturned the conviction in 2021, citing Fitzgerald’s “significant mental health problems”, including schizophrenia.

In a briefing, the Department of Corrections, Police and the Ministry of Justice said there was no local or international evidence that three-strike laws deterred recidivism. “Based on the data alone, there is no clear indication that three-strikes legislation deters individuals from committing qualifying offences,” it said. Under the repeal, judges will still be able to impose maximum sentences, but they will not be automatic.

National and Act, the parties that created the law last in government, opposed the repeal and said they would reinstate it if elected. “Three strikes meant the worst offenders spent longer in prison, created fewer victims and kept our communities safer,” National Justice spokesman Paul Goldsmith said.

The Green Party said the repeal did not go far enough, and that people convicted under the law should have their sentences re-examined by a judge. “Anyone who has experienced the harmful effects of this law should have the chance to have their sentence reconsidered,” said Green Justice spokesperson Golriz Ghahraman.

Abroad, three strike laws have been the subject of similar controversies. In California in 2010, a man was sentenced to up to eight years in prison for stealing a $3.99 bag of shredded cheese. He avoided a life sentence only because the court deemed him bipolar and unable to control his impulses to steal.

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