Confusion and outrage over a home detention sentence for sexual offending highlight the need for transparency in the courtroom
When Jayden Meyer received a sentence of nine months’ home detention for the rape and sexual violation of five 15-year-old girls, people couldn’t help but react.
Grief for the victims, anger over what some saw as a young man being let off lightly.
But more than anything, they were confused.
How – and why – did this brazen offending not result in the judge handing down a prison sentence?
This public confusion is what drove Debra Wilson, an associate professor of law at the University of Canterbury, to write an article for The Conversation explaining matters.
But this week’s news that the Crown’s bid to appeal the sentence had been declined by the High Court, on the grounds that it was filed six weeks late, didn’t make things any clearer.
“I think the outcome of the appeal is going to hurt [the victims] even more,” says Wilson.
“It basically means that if the Crown had appealed when they should have done, he’d be in prison right now.”
Jayden Meyer, now 18 years old, was convicted of four counts of rape and one of sexual violation. The offending took place when he was 16 and the five victims were 15.
“As soon as he was convicted, the Crown said ‘we will not be seeking imprisonment’. And then when it’s gone to the sentencing hearing, they’ve also said we’re looking at home detention because that’s the best option for rehabilitation. So the judge actually gave them what they asked for,” Wilson says.
“I think the Crown prosecutor’s boss has had another look at it and said ‘no, hang on, this isn’t right’, and they’ve made the decision to appeal.”
Meyer’s lawyer Rachel Adams submitted that this change of heart was motivated by “extreme public sensationalist reaction”, something the Crown denied.
NZ Herald Open Justice reporter Ethan Griffiths, who broke the story in September, tells The Detail that he came upon the case by chance, trawling through judgements on the Courts of New Zealand website.
The documents Griffiths found didn’t tell him much, only outlining the nature of the offending. It wasn’t until he wrote to the courts asking for more information that he found Meyer’s name and the judge’s sentence of nine months’ home detention for the four counts of rape and one of sexual violation.
But Judge Harding’s sentencing decision, handed down in July, was unusual.
“That decision was devoid of detail,” says Griffiths. “It did not remotely touch on how a sentence of home detention was reached, despite both the Crown and Judge Harding himself saying in the decision that a sentence for this offending would ordinarily be one of imprisonment.”
In her decision to decline the appeal application, Justice Fitzgerald said the sentencing judge didn’t follow the usual process and the sentencing exercise lacked transparency, “which in turn undermines public confidence in the administration of justice”.
Griffiths says a lack of information from the courts makes it hard for reporters to explain to the public what happens in court.
“Three months on now, the information that we have on how that original sentence was reached is still not known.”
Wilson explains that judges formulate their sentences according to the Sentencing Act, which tells them to take into account nine different purposes of sentencing, many of which can be difficult to reconcile with one another, such as both holding the offender accountable for their actions and focusing on their reintegration to society.
“So if you prioritise one of the considerations, he ends up in prison. If you prioritise another, he ends up on home detention.
“So it can be very difficult for the judge to figure out which purposes apply in a given situation.”
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