Wednesday, June 15, 2016

We need to do something about wrongful convictions

The media reported yesterday that Teina Pora will receive at least $2 million in compensation after being falsely convicted of a crime he did not commit and wrongly spending 21 years behind bars. Pora is just the latest in a long line of people falsely convicted and imprisoned by our police. And while most people will be making the entirely valid point that $2 million can never be enough to compensate him for what the police have stolen from him, I have a different message. Namely, that this happens far too often, and we need to do something about it.

There are a few obvious things we can do. Preventing police from relying on uncorroborated "confessions" at trial would prevent them from stitching up people as they did Pora. We need judicial reform as well so that they are better able to review potential miscarriages of justice, rather than (as at present) being helpless because time-limits have expired or police misconduct or exculpatory evidence has only come to light at the "wrong" stage of the appeals process. The courts are supposed to be able to correct mistakes, and their inability (some would say refusal) to do so in these cases undermines both justice and the credibility of the justice system as a whole.

But beyond that, we also need an agency with the specific task of investigating, reviewing, and making recommendations on potential miscarriages of justice, to fix the problems when the courts can't. The UK has a Criminal Cases Review Commission for exactly this purpose, and the absence of such a body in New Zealand has been glaring. Back in 2006 National backbencher Richard Worth (remember him?) had a member's bill which would have established such a body; it should be resurrected as government policy.

Finally, it is wrong that the wrongly convicted should have to go begging to Cabinet for ex gratia compensation, or (as is the case with David Bain) try and prove their actual innocence in order to receive it. Whether they committed the crime or not, they have been wrongly jailed and robbed of years, sometimes decades of their life unlawfully. Compensation for that should be automatic, not a matter of feudal grace and favour, and taken directly from the police budget. That way, we would also have a direct financial measure of the cost of these mistakes, and a direct financial incentive for police to make fewer of them.