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.

Comments (18)

by on September 14, 2011
Anonymous

Whilst it is not condoned what Mr Godsiff did to some of the seals.  To see this  well groomed, clean cut young man stand before the jury, with no previous convictions sentenced to two years in prison does indeed leave a bad taste in ones mouth.  Clearly he is a vulenrable young teeager who was pressured into a plea.  A once in a life time error of judgement and he has to spend time on the inside with reoffending thugs that have done far worse to another human being. Not a danger to society not even an agressive young man indicated by the loving family members that stand by him. I have to agree what good is this sentence going to do for a young man of such calibre????

by Rab McDowell on September 14, 2011
Rab McDowell

This is not a comment on the rights or wrongs or Godsiff’s actions. Nor is it a comment on whether justice has or has not been done.
It is a reflection on the fact that the act of clubbing seals, not all that long ago, was considered to be not just a lawful action but a legitimate way to earn a living. Not only that but the end result of that clubbing was to provide a luxury item of clothing much desired by the privileged of society. Now, that section of society, of which Claire Browning would be close to being one, has a quite different view of the desirability of such action.
Similarly, killing whales was also once considered a legitimate and well paid occupation. In fact it was one of the first businesses established by those who colonised this country and, without that industry, our country may have developed quite differently.
Now, we as a country and as individuals, go to some lengths to stop others killing whales and some of us take considerable risks in trying to do so.
So what has changed?
It is not the seals or the whales that have changed. It is us. Initially our rejection of the killing of these two species was based on the fear we may kill them off completely. Now their numbers have recovered and they are thriving that is no longer the case. Why then do we still oppose it?
100 to 150 years ago we thought that killing these animals was OK. Now we do not, although we still permit killing and eating other sea creatures. What has changed is the collective morality of the people. As the collective view changes we are prepared to punish those who do not agree with that view, even though their actions were once permitted. We think that, now, we are much more moral, humane and civilised that our predecessors. No doubt they thought they were much more moral, humane and civilised than those who preceded them. Are we right and were they wrong. I certainly am not going to argue to the contrary.
However, given the changes in our collective view over the last 100 years, I cannot help wondering which of our present activities will be regarded with horror and distaste by our descendants in 100 years time and what punishment will they meet out on their peers if the attempt to carry them out.

by Claire Browning on September 15, 2011
Claire Browning

Don't think I know you, Robert. If you did have reasoned opinions that you wanted to discuss, the ad hominem was a tactical error.

Sandy L, thanks for your views.

Travis Burns scrubbed up pretty well in court, too.

by Matthew Percival on September 15, 2011
Matthew Percival

I thought Sandy's contribution was a piss take

by Graeme Edgeler on September 15, 2011
Graeme Edgeler

We have, as it is, the second-highest rate of imprisonment in the developed world...

Indeed we do. Right behind the United States, Israel, Chile, Estonia, Poland and the Czech Republic.

by Rab McDowell on September 15, 2011
Rab McDowell

Claire

On re-reading my post I can see how you may have thought I was making an ad hominem attack on you. It was not intended. The point I was trying to make was that the views of people, including those of a similar socioeconomic level to yours (and in this I did make an assumption of your socioeconomic level), have changed markedly in the last 100-150 yrs from one where seal fur was a desired luxury item to one where the killing of seals is regarded as abhorrent.

No, you do not know me. I am not sure what difference that makes.

And in the last sentence I should have written mete, not meet. The errors we make when writing in haste.

by Claire Browning on September 16, 2011
Claire Browning

Imprisonment rate per 100,000 of population, as at June 2011:

http://www.corrections.govt.nz/about-us/facts_and_statistics/prisons/june_2011.html

In 2005, when our imprisonment rate was 155, not 199 as it is currently, we ranked 7th in the OECD, behind US, Mexico, and a clutch from Eastern Europe, including Poland (218) and the Czech Republic (170).

Compare our 199 with Scotland 153, England 152, Australia 134, Canada 117, Norway 71 - countries that look a lot like us, and whom we try to emulate.

Matthew - wow. Maybe, but that's a degree of cynicism too far for me, I'm afraid.

by Graeme Edgeler on September 16, 2011
Graeme Edgeler

I wasn't arguing our incarceration rate was something to be proud of. I was disputing your claim that "We have, as it is, the second-highest rate of imprisonment in the developed world..."

Unless the "we" refers to Israel, then we do not have the second highest rate of incarceration in the developed world (i.e OECD, though why Russia wouldn't also count as developed, I'm not sure). Instead we have the 7th highest rate (I was using slightly old data which had our rate as 203/100,000, and therefore had Mexico below us). And even then, we're only 7th if you exclude a place like Greenland, which as part of Denmark, might arguably count as OECD/developed.

ref: Prison Studies (University of Essex)

by Claire Browning on September 16, 2011
Claire Browning

I knew what you were doing, Graeme. It wasn't subtle and, despite possible appearances, I am not in fact stupid.

by Graeme Edgeler on September 16, 2011
Graeme Edgeler

Okay, now I'm confused. I was confident you knew what I was doing. But now I'm trying to work out what you were doing :-)

I wasn't trying to be subtle.

I commented, in effect: "you say we're 2nd. Well, we're not, we're 6th".

Then you replied, in effect: "we were 7th in 2005, but that was when our imprisonment rate was 155/100,000. Our imprisonment rate is now 199/100,000."

If the purpose of that statement wasn't to imply I was wrong, or that I was foolishly basing my criticism on 2005 data which have now changed, then what was it's purpose, because I'm lost?

I saw your comment and thought "well, now I look like a fool. I've just told someone who said we had the second highest incarceration in the OECD that she was wrong, and not only have I relied on out of date data, I've missed a country!"

But then I checked the data and it seems we were 7th in 2005 and are 7th now (or now-abouts).

by Roger Brooking on September 16, 2011
Roger Brooking

We have the second highest rate in the west - Eastern European countries are not considered to be in the west - even though they may be in the OECD.

Its all a bit academic anyway. The real point is that we lock more and more people up and don't provide much in the way of rehabilitation - which inevitably leads to high rates of re-offending and recidivism - and more statistics for comparison. See Flying Blind - How the justice system perpetuates crime and the Corrections Department fails to correct.

by Frank Macskasy on September 16, 2011
Frank Macskasy

I think I can understand what Claire is trying to say... During our youth, many of us do things - inexplicable things - that later on we look back on, and scratch our heads in bewilderment.

Some drive drunk and kill someone. Some get into fights and seriously injure another person. Some cause incredible, pointless harm to others because we thought we were such clever buggers. And some harm and kill animals in a senseless brutal way that defies rational explanation.

Whilst Robert may be historically correct and yes, we used to club seals to death - that society no longer exists (here in NZ). So it's a pointless point to make. Once upon a trime, we used to have Lords and Serfs - but no longer. Point being? There ain't none.

With people such as Mr Godsiff; or the young men who kill dozens of birds in Twizel (?); or the man who fed kittens to his pitbull (and filmed it!), if we're going to incarcerate them, then it makes sense for the Courts to order a full psychiatric assessment of the convicted. (If they don't already.)

The human psyche is capable of incredible good. But there's a dark place in that same psyche and for our collective welfare, it behoves us to learn why it has bubbled to the surface of some indiduals.

Claire asked the question; what happens to Mr Godsiff after his release?

Re, Graeme; whether we are 2nd or 7th is almost irrelevant really. There are many ways to count the figures and interpret the stats. What does count is that we're fairly high on thwe list.

More than one person cleverer than me has linked our high incarceration rate with our underlying penchant for violence, child abuse, and an almost pathological instinct for punishment/vindictiveness of one form or another. We're a tolerant, friendly, fair-minded society - until the surface is scratched, revealing something quite brutish underneath.

 

 

 

by Joe Wylie on September 19, 2011
Joe Wylie

I'm a little puzzled that there's no discussion of Mr Godsiff's motive. It seems to be assumed that he's in the same category as wanton kitten killers, yet his occupation was given as salmon farm employee. As he worked in an industry that could well have a vested interest in reducing seal numbers, it would seem to be a reasonable assumption that the crime was carried out on someone else's behalf.

by Claire Browning on September 22, 2011
Claire Browning

Here's Brian Rudman. Wonder if he reads Pundit? Excellent column, anyway:

http://www.nzherald.co.nz/brian-rudman-on-auckland/news/article.cfm?c_id=1502866&objectid=10753161

by Claire Browning on September 22, 2011
Claire Browning

Oh - and Roger, thanks very much. The "West", of course: the necessary but elusive collective noun.

by on October 14, 2011
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