Going to jail because you don’t live within cellphone coverage

…it was in the Hamilton District Court that I first saw the difference between coming from a family with money and influence and coming from a family that was dysfunctional and impoverished of spirit.

A young man was in the dock – he was charged with assault, resisting arrest, offensive language – the usual offences a young man clocks up when he’s mad with the drink.I knew him as an acquaintance.

I wasn’t surprised to see him in the dock but I was certainly taken aback by his spruced-up appearance. His hair was cut, he was freshly shaved, his tatts were covered by an expensive new suit and he was being represented by a fancy lawyer.

His parents, respectable business people, were in the front row to support their black sheep of a son.

I listened, astonished, as the lawyer painted this aggressive oik as a brilliant young man, a flower of New Zealand youth, whose enormous potential would be blighted by a conviction.

Imagine the loss to the country should this extraordinary human being be denied the opportunity to flourish – on and on the lawyer went, certainly earning his exorbitant hourly rate. Sure enough, the young man was discharged without conviction.

Two cases on, another young man was appearing for sentencing for almost exactly the same crimes. Assault and resisting arrest after a bender.

Only this young man was Maori, in jeans and a dirty T-shirt, with no family to support him and represented by a court-appointed lawyer.

This young man was sent to prison – from memory it was for nine months – to act as a short sharp shock, according to the judge, to deter him from a life of crime.

I thought it was terribly unfair but I didn’t think it was racism. I thought it was about the difference in economic circumstances.

Thirty years on I think it’s much the same in the case of the four Northland teenagers who were sentenced to home detention after going on a burglary spree totalling nearly $80,000 in stolen property.

There was outrage that the four (Pakeha) boys had got off so lightly. Many suggested the outcome would have been quite different if the boys had been Maori.

But once again, I think it comes down to economics. They or rather their families, have repaid some of the money owed and are able to pay reparations.

The judge, under the Sentencing Act, is required to look at home detention as an option where the sentence would otherwise be two years’ jail or less and in this case, the judge was able to take this option because the boys all had homes and they all had homes with good cellphone coverage.

When people are on home detention, there must be cellphone coverage.

And so a lot of young people miss out on the softer option because they don’t have supportive families, they don’t have a place they can call home and some of them live in remote parts of the country where cellphone coverage is, at best, patchy.

I can understand why people were upset at what appears to be a very light sentence for a bunch of overprivileged little oiks who went out thieving purely for giggles.

But accusing the judge of racism is unfair.

Blame the Sentencing Act in the first instance, if you want to, and then let’s work on improving the circumstances of under-privileged young people, many of them Maori, so that the law can be seen to be applied fairly and evenly across society.

You shouldn’t be able to get a soft option simply because your parents earn more money than their neighbour.



– Kerry McIvor, NZ Herald


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  • The Doorman

    alot of whats written there is true, looks at the Moari King’s son, he got off charges because he has the money behind him with good lawyers, nice suits, and families behind them, i think it is more of a money issue, than a race issue,

  • RightofSingapore

    There shouldn’t be a “softer option”to start with. Yo do the crime you do the time, regardless of what breed you are or how much support you have from Mommy and Daddy. the crimes committed (aggravating factors, early guilty plea etc) and their effect on the victim plus previous criminal history should be the only factors in sentencing. If Judges keep getting it wrong and handing out such inconsistent sentencing, then thats a good argument for mandatory minimum sentences.

  • ReginaldWellingtonJnr

    Yes. It is all how the cards are played. I remember a student teacher hauled before a judge for distributing lewd photos all over town. The lawyer naturally waxed on and on how this young woman made a mistake and she was paying for it. She hadn’t done anything else wrong and was an outstanding member of the community. If she was convicted she’d have her chances of being registered as a teacher scuppered. She got off very lightly. I bet if the lawyer was just the duty lawyer and she hadn’t dressed professionally then the punishment would have been a lot harder.

  • manuka416

    This is why I didn’t understand Boom Slang‘s “poverty license” cartoon that insinuated criminals in poverty didn’t face “real justice.” In reality, the impoverished get the harder whack of the stick in the courtroom.

  • sheppy

    What should happen, is the history of court visits should be kept, and if Mr Lawyered up, model citizen, plays up again, no matter who the judge is, he gets the original sentence he didn’t get plus what he’s due for the second offence. That way he has a chance to turn over a new leaf with a threat of what will happen if he doesn’t. The punishments should be on a sliding scale in any case so idiots that don’t get it discover that the punishment each time is greater, both to act as a deterrent, and also to give society a break from the offending.

  • Dave

    I wonder, when sentencing, do the judges take into account, the opportunity and likelihood of a FIRST offender being able to lead a life away from crime and violence, the fact one young man had a caring and capable family present, the other young man had no one to assist and guide him should have made a difference. However, in both cases, we have to assume this was a first offence for both of them. I don’t believe Maori are harder done by.

  • Sailor Sam

    I believe some of the opposite could apply, the well presented young man, with family backing him etc etc should have gotten a bigger sentence, same as the 4 teenages last week.
    Why? Theywent of the rails anyway in spite of having a respectable family background, moneyed parents, fancy lawyer etc etc. Maybe it was sheer bravado on their part, knowing that mummy and daddy would look after them when caught.
    Thus they had no excuse at all, compared to the poor coloured kid in scruffy clothes, no family, poor lawyer etc etc.
    Not that the poor coloured kid should have gotten off his punishment though.

  • JC

    Like it or not there’s a self fulfilling expectation when a Maori is in the dock.. there are decades and generations of statistics to show he or she is more (most) likely to be a long term crook. And to be honest one look at the family and supporters mightn’t do him/her any favours either.


    • Wheninrome

      Especially when they call out from the gallery.

  • Wheninrome

    Let us just think of a certain extremely large individual, KDC. Now it sure ain’t his race, (I think we are over the war), it isn’t his body size challenging to the scales that may be, but in this case not the scales of justice, but I am firmly of the view that it is the size of his wallet that is allowing him to remain in NZ. So, yes it unfortunately does get down to economics, or in some cases that cry of “but he/she will lose the opportunity to represent NZ in sport, it will be the ruination of their promising sporting career.

  • WBC

    There is definitely a problem with this I think , in two ways. One, the offender does not have a functional family and therefore the parents are highly responsible for the young persons failings. Secondly, while removing the young person from the disfunctional pack would be a very positive thing, prison is simply going to make them worse.

    But let’s be clear. “he was charged with assault, resisting arrest, offensive language” is NOT “the usual offences a young man clocks up when he’s mad with the drink.”. It is a crime, one with a very definite victim and one in which he has subsequently put police officers at risk.