The seal basher, and the hang ‘im high club

Twelve months in prison for clubbing to death 23 seals, injuring others, leaves nobody with anything to celebrate.

Yesterday, a Marlborough teenager was sentenced to two years in prison, for battering 23 seals and pups to death with a steel pole.

A “seal basher”, he was called. The response -- on Twitter, for where else would Forest & Bird be, but on Twitter? -- can be summed up as, “Yay! Two years! Strong message.” Some thought it was not strong enough. Seal Swim Kaikoura also celebrated the victory. It was “fantastic to see authorities sending a clear message”. It should count as a deterrent. These were the “puppies of the ocean”. DOC said it reflected the “high esteem” people have for seals.

The offender, Mr Godsiff, was charged with wilful ill-treatment, for which the maximum prison term is five years’ imprisonment.

Under sentencing law, the maximum prison term is reserved for the “worst class of case” (of its type). Cases near to the worst require a sentence near to the maximum term.

It makes you wonder quite what you would have to do, to attract a five-year sentence. Two years -- which in truth, again under sentencing law, means 12 months, because a short-term sentence of two years or less is completed when the offender has served half of it -- does not send a “clear message”, at all.

It is part of the pattern of responses to very serious animal abuse, where, relatively speaking, paltry sentences are imposed.

Two years, compared to some other sentences that have been imposed for shocking animal abuse, dragging live goats (plural) behind cars and so forth, is indeed a sort of a victory, albeit a Pyrrhic one. Only ten people have ever been jailed in New Zealand as a result of animal cruelty charges, a Parliamentary select committee was recently told.

Mr Godsiff’s sentence is, probably, the result of an increase in the maximum sentence for animal cruelty, to five years from three last year. That is how sentence adjustment works, in this country. When the sexual violation maximum was lifted from 14 years to 20, the sentencing ‘starting point’ moved from five years to eight.

Compared to the tariff Parliament has set for this type of offending, it is a farce.

In a former life, I was not a conservation advocate. I worked for the Law Commission, where I co-authored a report about -- wait for it -- truth in sentencing, and our ever-rising prison population.

The report was lauded overseas, as visionary. England, also struggling to manage its prison population, is moving swiftly to adopt it. Our Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias, and others, have some different views, on matters not directly relevant to this post, that I am not really free to discuss, even if I had the inclination (I don’t).

Prior to the 2008 election, legislation was passed that would have given effect to all of our recommendations. The parole recommendations, which would have lifted parole eligibility from one-third of a sentence to two-thirds, have not been brought into force; key sentencing ones, including a new Sentencing Council Act, are in force, but not being implemented.

Anyway. Very briefly. Here are some of the less controversial things that it said.

For judges to impose sentences, everybody knowing that they do not mean what they say, makes a mockery of the criminal justice system. It is also necessary, however. Were two years, in Mr Godsiff’s case, to really mean two years -- were, heaven forbid, something close to five years to be imposed -- our prisons could not cope. We have, as it is, the second-highest rate of imprisonment in the developed world; and the gap between us and our neighbours on this has widened steadily.

It is also politically convenient, for those banging the law and order drum, often in response to a particularly gruesome case, to be able to hike the maximum, knowing full well that judges will moderate the sentence, in practice, and then cop the flak for imposing something “too low”. There is no consistent way of deciding how much actual punishment a given kind of offending warrants, and whether prison is the necessary or most effective kind: judges and lawmakers alike stick their finger in the wind.

It leaves the kind of credibility gap and bad taste in the mouth that is so apparent, in the animal cruelty cases. But they are not an isolated example. We need a better method of managing all of these issues. I think I am not exaggerating when I say that, thus far as the argument goes, everybody agrees.

The argument was about how to do it.

As it stands, a two-year prison term has been imposed on the “seal basher”, who will only serve 12 months. He will not then be paroled, because there is no parole, for short-term sentences. He will be in prison, then out on the street, trying to pick up where he left off.

He is 19 years old. He has done a dreadful, dreadful thing. Creatures -- whom it is now my job to speak for -- have cruelly, slowly died.

But I asked, on Twitter, whether this 12 months’ prison time that Mr Godsiff will serve is the best use of his time, and our money. We will spend $90,000 this year, to keep him in prison.

If he is one of the truly “bad buggers” (a term of art, you understand) -- a psychopath, essentially, and we have a few of those, for whom community safety really does demand incarceration -- what will happen to change him, in the next 12 months? Will it touch his heart? Will it keep anyone safer, in a year’s time?

If he is not a psychopath, if he is just a kid with some serious anger and violence issues, what will 12 months' boredom and initiation in one of our so-called ‘universities of crime’ do? Sometimes, it turns people around. More often, it does not. More often, it does the opposite.

Whichever way you look at it, this sentence is nothing to celebrate. The next time an angry 19 year old wigs out, will he (or she, but usually a he) stop to reflect on Mr Godsiff and think, “whoops, better not”? Does it really show the “high esteem” of seals, and Parliament’s abhorrence of wilful ill-treatment, indicated by the five-year maximum?

The only clear message that it sends is that we -- we all -- have some attitude problems of our own, about law and order and penal policy, that we need to confront. This is election year, however. My hopes of this are not high.