The latest Ministry of Justice statistics show an increase in charges and convictions for violent and serious offences. Photo / 123rf
There has been a 10 per cent increase in the number of people convicted of a serious crime and a similar rise in the number of those convicted of a violent crime in the past year.
And while there isn’t much difference in the use of prison sentences for serious or violent offences compared to last year, there’s been a significant jump in the use of community sentences compared with 10 years ago.
That’s according to the latest Justice Ministry statistics, released today for the year to June, which show a 13 per cent increase in the number of people charged and an 11 per cent increase in the number of people convicted compared to last year.
Both of these figures were below pre-pandemic levels, however.
The latest statistics are likely to feature in tonight’s leaders’ debate between Labour’s Chris Hipkins and National’s Christopher Luxon, as law and order has been a high priority for them both while on the election campaign.
In real terms, almost 5000 more people were convicted this year – most commonly for traffic offences – compared to last year, including about 750 additional people for serious offences, and a similar number of additional people for violent offences.
Serious offences include those with a maximum sentence of at least seven years’ prison, including murder, aggravated robbery, rape and dealing methamphetamine.
There is some crossover with violent offences, which include murder, rape, acts intended to cause injury, abduction and kidnapping, and robbery.
For all offences, custodial sentences were used 11 per cent of the time, the same as last year and down from 13 per cent five years ago.
This proportion jumps to 34 per cent for serious offences, 27 per cent for violent offences, and 24 per cent for family violence offences – all of which are the same or within 1 percentage point as last year.
The use of community sentences has increased markedly in the past 10 years, which also correlates to a significant drop in recorded crime statistics.
But the tragedy of getting it wrong was underlined when Matu Reid shot and killed two people in downtown Auckland while on home detention in July.
The use of home detention for a person convicted of a violent offence almost doubled over the past 10 years, from 7 to 13 per cent. There were similar increases for community detention and intensive supervision, both of which were used 12 per cent of the time last year.
Over the same period, the proportion of those sent to prison for a violent offence rose slightly from 25 to 27 per cent (down from a peak of 28 to 30 per cent in the pre-pandemic years), while community work sentences more than halved from 27 to 12 per cent.
Imprisonment for serious offences has remained just as common as it was 10 years ago (34 per cent of those convicted), though this has dropped from a peak of 40 per cent in 2016/17 and 2017/18. Community sentencing for serious offences has also been increasing, while community work sentences have been used far less frequently (dropping from 29 to 9 per cent).
How the judiciary deals with those convicted of violent offences has been a frequent topic during the election campaign, with questions about who should be allowed to avoid a prison sentence in favour of a community sentence.
Prison has been described – by chief science advisor (justice) Dr Ian Lambie – as an expensive training ground for further offending, and non-custodial sentences have correlated with less engagement with the justice pipeline in following years.
Reoffending rates for non-custodial sentences are also much lower than for custodial ones: 56.5 per cent of those released from prison in 2019/20 were re-sentenced within two years, compared to 35 per cent – the lowest for 30 years – for community sentences.
The greatest increase across all crime over the years has been for theft, which made up 14 per cent of convictions in the year to June, up from 9 per cent a decade ago.
There has also been an increase in acts intended to cause injury (rising from 8 per cent to 10 per cent of all convictions over the last 11 years, though steady since 2019/20) and sexual assault (rising from 1 per cent to 3 per cent of all convictions over the last decade).
These trends align with police statistics that have shown an uptick in recent years in recorded theft (due in part to better reporting mechanisms), and violent crime (due in part to the introduction of new family harm offences).
This also aligns with the findings of the latest New Zealand Crime and Victims Survey, which showed 26,000 fewer victims but almost half a million more incidents of interpersonal violent crime incidents in 2022 (though the ministry says there is some statistical uncertainty due to a lower sample size and response rate).
The latest ministry data also showed a 15 per cent increase in young people being charged compared to last year. This also aligns with previous Justice Ministry data showing an increase in youth offending followed over a decade of a steady decrease.
Hipkins has indicated that, if re-elected, he would have a look at home detention and whether it is being used appropriately.
National and Act have both indicated that they want to ensure the rules around community sentences are stricter.
Derek Cheng is a senior journalist who started at the Herald in 2004. He has worked several stints in the press gallery team and is a former deputy political editor.