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Revenge is not Justice

April 18, 2021

The appeal by the man convicted of the 2019 Christchurch mosque massacre against his jail conditions and terrorist status was not surprising. He probably has little else to do and his action follows the pattern of many long-term prison inmates who have used their time to engage in ongoing litigation, often at taxpayer expense. 

Some long-term inmates also undertake academic studies, often for the first time in their lives, to occupy their time and better prepare them for life back in the community when their sentences are completed. The Christchurch killer does not have that option but he should be allowed to study or engage in healthy activities if he chooses.      

The negative reaction of many people to the appeal, which was subsequently postponed, was also reasonably predictable but what do we expect of our system of justice? 

At his sentencing, to life without parole, many victim impact statements included understandable expressions of anger and a wish that his time in jail would be as uncomfortable and unpleasant as possible.    Few people would disagree with those sentiments but sometimes the demand for justice by a bereaved family is really little more than a demand for revenge and retribution. This is particularly so if they feel the sentence is too lenient, which in this case it was not. It was the most severe sentence available to the judge since capital punishment was abolished in 1961. It was the first time that sentence has been imposed and the killer is the first in New Zealand to be officially declared a terrorist. 

The reaction of survivors and families of victims of the Christchurch shootings is however perfectly natural but justice, as applied by our laws, is much more than simple revenge or imposing a punishment including the loss of liberty to inflict pain and suffering.

Retribution in that sense is an essential part of justice but it is not the full picture. Our judges must also consider a wide range of other matters which the general public and even bereaved families often do not see, hear or take into consideration.      

In most cases involving imprisonment judges must consider the long-term impact, particularly on young people, of a jail sentence. In some cases, particularly for murder, they have few options for the long-term protection and rehabilitation of offenders as they try to rebuild their lives. Judges take into account the circumstances of each case separately and then apply their experience of the law and knowledge of society. That is true judgement and what we have them for.

Prisoners are not sent to jail to be punished as they were in historic times. Being sent to jail is the punishment itself and all prisoners, regardless of their crimes, must be treated humanely and cannot be subjected to torture or be deprived of the essentials of life. Under New Zealand law all prisoners must be allowed to take exercise, have proper bedding and a healthy diet. The days of bread and water are long gone.  New Zealand prison inmates are also entitled to at least one private visitor a week, legal advice, medical services, mail, and telephone calls.

Sometimes restrictions are imposed for the safety of the prisoner or the safety of those around them but restrictions cannot be imposed as a form of punishment as that could often impede rehabilitation. 

In this tragic case the element of rehabilitation was not a consideration as the sentence was life without parole. That means for all intents and purposes, that the killer will never be rehabilitated back into society or even get out of jail and will most likely die there. What our laws may look like and twenty or thirty years from now is unknown but, sometime in the future, there could well be a different requirement and expectation of the justice system and the treatment of long-term prisoners. 

The Christchurch mosque shooter is still a human being and not an animal, which probably the only reason he is still alive. We don’t know the details of his complaints but he must be allowed to demand and receive the level of services, treatment and consideration our laws say are his by right. To deprive him of that makes us little better than he is. Then there are members of his family who are also innocent victims of his horrendous crime and we have no cause to impose any more distress on them than they have already endured.  

Nothing will undo tragedies, bring back the deceased or ease the distress of bereaved families but justice is not served by creating new victims in the quest for revenge no matter how tempting that might be.