New Zealand Labour repeals three-strikes law its says led to ‘absurd’ sentences

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Michael Craig/New Zealand Herald</span>
Photograph: Michael Craig/New Zealand Herald

New Zealand’s Labour government has repealed the controversial “three strikes” law under which a mentally ill man was sentenced to seven years in prison for trying to kiss a stranger in the street.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 a maximum sentence to any criminals who had committed three serious sex, violent or drug crimes over their lifetime – regardless of the timeframe of offending, discretion of the judge, or other mitigating factors.

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

The justice minister, Kiritapu Allan, said on its repeal that the three-strikes law was “a kneejerk reaction to crime” that resulted in disproportionate and excessive sentences.

“There was no evidence that it worked. It failed to be a deterrent to offenders, it failed the taxpayer, and it failed victims, because it ensured they were in the system for 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 jail, after being convicted in 2018 of trying to kiss a woman on a Wellington street without her permission. At the time, the judge indicated that the circumstances of Fitzgerald’s offending would not usually result in prison time, but his hands were tied by the law. The supreme court overturned the sentence in 2021, citing Fitzgerald’s “significant mental health issues” including schizophrenia.

In a briefing, the corrections department, police and justice ministry said there was no local or international evidence that three-strikes laws deterred reoffending. “Based on the data alone, there is no distinct indication that the three-strikes legislation is deterring 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 when last in government, opposed the repeal, and said they would reinstate it if elected. “Three strikes meant that the worst repeat offenders spent longer in prison, creating fewer victims and keeping our communities safer,” said the National justice spokesperson, Paul Goldsmith.

The Green party said the repeal did not go far enough and people sentenced under the law should have their sentence reconsidered by a judge. “Anyone who has experienced the harmful effects of this law should have the chance to have their sentence reviewed,” said the Green justice spokesperson, Golriz Ghahraman.

Overseas, three strikes laws have been subject to 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.