My experience with the criminal justice system.

From ages 20-25 I was doing graffiti and getting caught and going through the New Zealand criminal justice system.

One person involved in one of my arrests said I was ‘incorrigible’ . It was the first time I’d heard that term, and the term fits.

(of a person or their behaviour) not able to be changed or reformed.

You get a few free passes in the criminal – being educated and white probably helps.

My diversion was used in in my first week since leaving home – when I was caught shoplifting a coffee grinder. I spent three days sweeping graves and vacuuming the crematorium lobby.

I got caught shoplifting gumboots that I impulsively walked out of the The Warehouse wearing. The staff were tipped off by old ladies fundraising outside who noticed that I wasn’t wearing the gumboots when I walked in. I was arrested and when I went to court I told the duty solicitor that I’d just forgotten to pay for them, as  evidenced by that I’d bought $80 worth of other stuff – and he convinced the police to drop the charges.

My third free pass was being caught doing graffiti in either Timaru or Oamaru. I was hitchhiking, and couldn’t pass up putting my tag on a big blank wall in the middle of day.

This lead to several members of the public making a concerted effort to chase me down, and I was arrested, and made to scrub the tag off. I was given a discharge without conviction.

But after that – my arrests started having teeth – first fines, then the fines were commuted to community service. I did two stints of community service (the second being 200 hours) and received a jail warning. My final conviction was a second jail warning and a sentence to a year’s intensive supervision – which involved regularly checking in weekly with my probation officer.

It was at this point, and prior to the actual conviction, that I was committed to rehabilitation – the prospect of a jail sentence scared me – and I was aware that a jail sentence would mean I wouldn’t be eligible for a conviction clean slate, under Nandor Tanczos clean slate legislation. So I enrolled in a university course, and arranged to lived with my mum in the case that I the judge decided to impose a sentence of home detention. No doubt this also served to show some efforts at reform in the eyes of the sentencing judge (although the sentencing hearing was all of five minutes).

One of the first meetings I had with the probation officer I think is a profound reflection of the resourcing the the criminal justice system has. The PO when through a questionnaire assessing various social needs – did I use drugs, how often did I drink, did I have debt etc. One of the questions was – did I gamble?. I didn’t use the pokies – but at the time I did play online poker. So the probation officer referred me to gambling counselling. This was – probably the single most effective thing the justice system did for my rehabilitation (aside from perhaps the clean slate legislation) – I didn’t talk about gambling with the gambling counsellor, but was able to talk about anything else.

Experience of community service

I did I believe two stints of community service. I think one was for 80 hours, and the other for 200 hours.

The experience of community service changes, depending on the location. In my experience, Paeroa had a more professional feel about it, whereas Motueka the probies and the offenders seemed chummy – I even witnessed a probie smoking weed openly with some of the offenders.

Community service is usually just wasting time. Sometimes we did things that were clearly of value – mowing lawns for a bowls club, or weeding and laying down weed matting for a marae. But in Motueka for example – the fallback task was going to hill and removing gorse – never at a rate that would completely eradicate it. Maybe I’m being cynical. I’d be curious to see what the state of that hill is now.

The work was never particularly hard or urgent. There was a lot of shovel leaning.

A lot of the people I was on community service with were there for car offences. They’d rack up tens of thousands of dollars of fines for driving warrantless cars or not having a license – and then get those fines converted to community service. The conversion rate was around $50/hr.

Drunk driving was another common offence.

One guy I talked to – said he was on for evading police. He said he was transporting a large amount of meth in his car and police tried to pull him over. Rather than risk a ten-year prison sentence, he boosted it, driving dangerously to escape the police. The police still caught up with him later – but of course the dangerous driving is a far lesser charge than being caught with meth. It’s always possible that he was lying, but the story makes sense to me.

In many respects, I was quite different to the offenders – educated, well spoken, not a smoker. I would suggest, quite a pleasant kind of offender to deal with. But on the other hand – I was very much the same – a young male making short-sighted and irrationally costly decisions.

Experience of the police and the courts.

For the overwhelming most part – my experience of the police has been that they’ve been respectful and professional. Of the 10-15 times I was arrested, I can only recall being handcuffed twice. Once a standard hands-behind-my-back when being arrested during daylight in Dunedin – and another time hands-in-front when they were doing a prisoner transfer to a town an hour away where the court was, after deciding they were opposing bail.

This was to my advantage – on two separate occasions I was able to get rid of drugs I had on my person, once by hiding them beneath the seat – and the other time, amazingly, I ate the cannabis with a cop right next to me – as she had turned away. Thirty minutes later, while being booked at the police station, it started coming on.

I have two negative experiences I can speak of. One is – after being arrested by a detective in Christchurch, after he happened to be driving past as I was peeing on a tree – in the police cells, he’d give me these little shoves. It sounds minor – but it felt disrespectful and as if he was egging me on to react to it. 

The other was, having about to start spray painting a wall, a women in a nearby building yelled at me and I took off running. The police caught me – searched my bag, and arrested me. The wall was already covered in graffiti – and they just took a photo of any old tag (not mine – I hadn’t actually started painting the wall yet) and told the court that’s what I’d painted.

This was actually my first conviction. I represented myself at trial – I didn’t win – the judge putting value on the witness’s testimony – who’d said that she’d seen me painting the wall. I imagine I might have gotten off if I did have a lawyer – part of the evidence they’d confiscated was a sketchbook of my tags that clearly didn’t match the photo they took.

Though, the duty solicitors aren’t always good. Their job is just as much to help funnel people through the grinder that is the court system, as it is to help the defendants. I had one experience where due to some kind of paperwork error – I’d turned up to court to find that there was a warrant for my arrest for failing to turn up to court in another town – something I’d arranged to have changed. I’d told the duty solicitor this – and he neglected to mention it to the judge – and entered a guilty plea for it. So I have a conviction for failing to appear in court on my record, which is unwarranted – and is probably far too late to fix now.

How I would suggest improving the criminal justice system.

I have no doubt that in my case, an intervention could have been done at my very first arrest that might have prevented a continuing life of crime. A conversation around ‘what actually are you doing here? – Are you aware of the consequences for your life in ten and twenty years?’. Though – chances are I would have given some spiel about the system and not being beholden to the man or something.

It wouldn’t be the police’s responsibility to do this intervention – instead – what I would suggest is that early diversion and sentencing involves a compulsory visit to some kind of trained therapist or psychologist. Of course – the problem is – I imagine the justice system simply doesn’t have that kind of money.

The alternative I suppose – would to put my community hooks in. This already exists – often community service is done working at an op shop etc, under the direct supervision of the op shop and not probation officers. Presumably if community counselling exists – then offenders could be referred to community counselling at that be taken in consideration at sentencing.

At least in my experience – this didn’t happen, but perhaps it’s getting more common as the case of when my bike was stolen would suggest.

 

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One thought on “My experience with the criminal justice system.

  1. Fascinating! Good on the old ladies for noticing the gumboots! I think it took the very real fear of jail to change the course you were on. Are you aware of the consequences for your life in 10 or 20 years? Nah… . if you had been asked this question at your first conviction you would have taken absolutely no notice, as the world was ending in 2012, remember?

    Like

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