Opinion: When Patience Pari appeared in Rotorua District Court for sentencing on Friday, she could have become the face of the so-called crime wave: two counts of dangerous driving causing injury, and one each of refusing a police request to give blood, resisting police and aggravated assault.

She had admitted to offences including smashing her car into two other vehicles, including one with a nurse and her three children.

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But instead of becoming another crime statistic, Pari is a month off graduating from a residential rehabilitation course to deal with her substance abuse issues. She has already spent three months remanded in police custody.

Her rehabilitation efforts have so impressed Judge Maree Mackenzie that she’s ruled Pari will not face any further custodial penalty, the Rotorua Daily Post reports. Pari had been through significant personal trauma that shed light on why she would turn to substances, the judge noted.

Judge Mackenzie ordered Pari to pay $500 reparation, disqualified her from driving for 12 months and ordered her to be the subject of 12 months’ intensive supervision. She expressed confidence in Pari. “If you are doing well, we will not see each other again.”

Crime and justice stories like these won’t define this year’s election campaign – but perhaps they should. Both the Labour Government and the National Opposition have now committed to funding more rehabilitation for remand prisoners. This is a chance for first-time offenders, before they are thrown into the general prison population – seen as a school for hardened criminals.

Māori are significantly over-represented in the prison population, comprising 53 percent of people in prison. Some 68 percent of women remanded in custody have Māori whakapapa. Some will spend years before their case is heard by a judge or jury.

Newsroom’s Emma Hatton reported last year that 32 people had been held on remand for more than two years, five people more than three years and one person had been held for just over five years. 

Last week, Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis introduced a law change to provide for equitable rehabilitation and reintegration outcomes for Māori. It would also allow the limited mixing of accused and convicted people in prison for kaupapa Māori, educational, religious, and therapeutic programmes.

Then yesterday at the National Party conference, Corrections spokesperson Mark Mitchell (seemingly unaware of the unpublicised corrections bill) announced a National government would extend eligibility for all rehab programmes to remand prisoners.

“Although remand prisoners can enrol in life skills courses like parenting or money management,” he said, “they are not eligible for more effective offence-based rehabilitation programmes, which address the underlying causes of serious offences.”

Labour has taken a first step, and National a bigger one. This unexpected political alignment is a chance for the parties to put their votes where their mouths are, at the bill’s first reading, and together to back better rehabilitation.

This election could be a crime arms race, in which the parties compete to put more people behind bars for longer at great cost to both our communities and the public purse. Or they could together work to prevent crime. 

Patience Pari expressed her remorse in court, and acknowledged she was not in a “safe” place at the time. “I will never do this again.”

Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.

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