Le’aufaamulia to MPs, “Vote to save a child”
This is despite the unanimous cross-party support MPs gave it in its first reading, September last year.
National’s Tim McIndoe said then, “We know that a key to reducing crime long term is to stop children from entering the criminal justice system. This is a bill that may well contribute to that end. It will, I am sure, play a constructive role.”
At the Select Committee level, the majority of submitters supported the Sentencing (Protection of Children from Criminal Offending) Amendment Bill.
The Children’s Commissioner submitted it will “strengthen the capacity of New Zealand’s current sentencing laws to adequately respond to offending which affects children.”
The United Nations agency for children, UNICEF NZ added its support.
“The bill is an example of the way in which parliament can ensure that law and policy help to protect children from harms that may arise in a child’s home or community.”
However, the NZ Law Society disagreed stating in its submission the bill is not needed.
“The courts already routinely take the presence of minors into account as an aggravating feature.”
It is a position that both National and Labour have also taken which means they will oppose the bill when it comes around for its second reading.
Su’a William Sio, Labour’s Pacific islands spokesperson told the Pacific Guardians, “While we collectively share Le’au’s [Asenati Lole-Taylor] concerns about children being exposed to crime…the ability for a judge to include a crime being committed in front of a child as an aggravating factor, already exists in the law.”
Sponsor of the bill, New Zealand First MP, Le’au Asenati Lole-Taylor told Pacific Guardians, “I expected National to oppose my bill because as long as they are the government, they will oppose any New Zealand First bill, no matter how much it will benefit New Zealand.
“The Law Society’s position was also expected as they benefit financially from the law as it is currently.
“But I’m astounded with Labour’s response. It is obvious that no one in their caucus has taken the time to study the current legislation.”
Le’au Asenati clarified, “Currently, when an offender is found guilty, the law tells the judge he or she ‘must’ issue a sentence that reflect the crime that was committed. But it doesn’t give the same focus on children that were present at the scene or area of the criminal activity.
“The current law gives the judge the ‘option’ that he/she ‘can’ or ‘may’ take the presence of children into account when sentencing – but it is not a ‘must’ that he/she does it. The judge doesn’t have to consider it.
“But if my bill becomes law, then the extra power it brings is that the judge ‘must’ focus equally on, first, the crime committed, and secondly, on children that were present as the other principal victims of the offender.
“It means the law will officially recognize children as victims and a judge must include a separate penalty for the crime against them.
“It is important because the judges ‘pause to consider or not consider the option’, is where a number of young children have had their futures wrecked psychologically or physically, at worst, lose their lives.”
Le’au Asenati explained one of the deeper benefits of her bill, “not obvious from a surface glance” is that under the current law, children at the scene of the crime have to go through an interview process with a psychologist to determine if the child was emotionally affected; or if the child is going to have long-term psychological harm.
“There are two shortfalls in that process which my bill will address,” she said.
“First, not only are the children forced to re-live the entire traumatic experience but the ultimate goal of the interview is to try and confirm a ‘guilty’ verdict for the criminal. Its goal is not to determine what penalty must be included in the offender’s sentence for the psychological or mental harm suffered by the child or children.
“Second, children witnessing or in the vicinity of a crime being committed are affected emotionally and psychologically. We do not need a child to be physically maimed or show us a scar to tell us that a child’s been harmed and that a penalty for it must be included in a sentence.”
Le’au’s bill will remove the requirement for a child having to re-live the trauma; and a guilty verdict will include the extra penalty for committing a crime in the presence of children.
“I’m sad to say that currently, and for so long, that is what’s been happening. Because it is not clear from any of the sentences that have been issued by judges that they have used the ‘option’, or have increased a criminal’s sentence by exercising the option.
“What the current situation illustrates is that the system is not tuned to hear the cries for justice from our children in these instances.
“My bill plugs the law into the frequency that hears their cry for justice. It stops them from having to re-live trauma, and that their well-being and protection is prioritized by law as of right – rather than as an added-on option.
“For members who still feel the law is adequate let me say this, ‘I know my bill will save the life of a child. That is why I’m fighting for this amendment with every fibre of my being’.”
To Labour and others who hold the view the current law is good enough, she pointed out, “They have not done their homework or look deep into the different levels where this amendment offers protection to children.
“At the same time, it acts as a deterrent to adults getting into criminal activities that would harm themselves and the children. And in doing so, it also addresses the issues of family violence, gambling, infancy deaths safety in the home and so forth.”
She issued a challenge for Labour to reverse its position and support her bill.
“If any criminal has been penalized for the ‘option’ Labour says exists in the law. If anyone has, or a judge has increased a criminal’s sentence exercising the option, then bring it to the table because it’s not clear from any of the sentences that have been issued by judges so far.
“And if there are cases, then we can assess what percentage and how often was the option exercised, and qualify the impacts of exercising the option on the well-being of the affected children and effectiveness on the offender when they have served their sentence.
“I am confident once that happens, Labour’s caucus will see why they must support this bill.”
She also urged members opposing the bill to look at the fundamentals of how judges make judgements.
It is based on the fundamental concepts of protection of the public, fairness, deterring others from committing crime and reforming the individual offender.
“When you look at those fundamentals, my bill impacts on all of them. My bill’s aim is not just to increase the level of penalty.”
It will make criminals think twice about committing a crime if there are children in the premises she said.
“If the sentences are tough enough, those people who have made-up their minds to commit a crime at the least, will consider removing the children to a safe place in case they get caught.
“Even the action of removing the children is a winner because it is sending out a message that what they might be doing is not the right thing. Without witnessing the adults criminal activities, the children are less likely to be influenced to follow suit when they grow up.
“That is another preventive factor in this bill. That by putting children, their safety and well-being in the middle of the law, in the middle of policy, we are protecting them from harm and place measures to safeguard and direct their future potential away from criminal activities by default.”
Le’au Asenati is hoping that members of parliament will see the life and death power her amendment to the law carries.
“This bill will save the life of a child. That is how important this is to me,” she said.
“This is the very reason why I wanted to become a member of this legislative assembly – to be part of legislations that make a difference in our people’s lives.
“And now to be in a position, with the opportunity, to bring a law into being that will save a life – wouldn’t you give it everything you have?.
“This is not about legacies, points scoring party politics or individual achievements, this is the heart, the very reason why this legislative assembly and democracy came to being.
“For this 50th parliament, this bill gives every member a chance to collectively share in something bigger than ourselves, a chance to save the lives and future potentials of New Zealand’s children at risk.
“It only takes a vote for it to happen. I pray the members of parliament will unite and do right by our children.”
If the bill is defeated?
“I will definitely re-submit it. This is just too important.”