Ardern in fiery exchange over lighter meth dealer sentences

The AM Show 22/10/2019

The Prime Minister has been caught in a fiery exchange on The AM Show after refusing to comment on a Court of Appeal ruling changing how methamphetamine dealers are sentenced. 

On Monday, the Court released a judgement introducing "new guidelines for judges sentencing people convicted of offences related to the importation, manufacture and supply of methamphetamine". 

Poverty, addiction and mental health will now be considered as potential mitigating factors. Addiction "shown to be causative of the offending" may justify a lesser sentence of up to 30 percent. Judges are also encouraged to consider whether sentencing could be adjourned while offenders undertake rehabilitation. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern refused to comment on the decision on Tuesday, citing the need to ensure a separation between the Government and the courts, maintaining judicial independence

It is a Court of Appeal decision and I am not going to comment on something that is for the Court of Appeal.

"There is a very clear distinction between the ability of us as the Government to influence decisions made by the Court of Appeal and what we do around setting the parameters for the law itself."

However, she stressed she took a very hardline view on people who "peddle" drugs. Ardern noted her Government introduced the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Act which classified two main synthetic drugs as Class A, increasing the penalty for supplying them. 

"Those who peddle misery need to face the consequences of that," she said. 

Despite her reluctance, The AM Show host Ryan Bridge tried to push her on giving her opinion on the Court of Appeal decision, but Ardern wouldn't budge. 

"I see methamphetamine as the epitome of misery in New Zealand... It is a horrific drug," she said.

"Those who supply and manufacture, those are the ones that we have an expectation that there is a very hard line taken against."

Bridge said that sounded like she opposed the court decision, but again Ardern refused to comment.

Ryan, you know you cannot put me in that position. A court decision is a court decision.

"As I say, we need to be clear on manufacture and supply. There is another discussion to be had about what do you do about those who aren't manufacturing, aren't supplying, but are simply users. In those cases, yes you have seen us talking about things like rehabilitation."

Bridge, Ardern, Richardson. Photo credit: The AM Show.

Questioned by Bridge if this decision would see increased demand for rehabilitation services, the Prime Minister said her Government was already working to address shortages. For example, in May, the Government committed to expanding alcohol and drug therapy services

In the last Budget, we have substantially increased the funding to drug and alcohol rehabilitation.

We have put aside, for instance, an extra $200 million to rebuild and extend facilities and we have also boosted the funding for those existing services."

Bridge said the question he wanted answered was whether there were enough rehabilitation beds and "it doesn't sound like we are going to get an answer this morning". When he then began to move on to another topic, Ardern stopped him.

"Oh no, Ryan, I am sorry, I am sorry, Ryan. I just told you that we know there is not enough and that is why we put extra money in the Budget and we are currently building those places," she said.

The AM Show host said that was to keep up with demand that already existed and that the Court of Appeal ruling encouraging judges to use their powers to allow offenders to enter rehab centres would increase such pressure on services. He asked whether the Government would pledge more money to keep up.

Ardern replied: "A decision was made by the Court of Appeal basically in the last 48 hours. What I am telling you is before that we had an issue with drug and alcohol rehabilitation."

We inherited an issue we are working as quickly as we can to fix.

Bridge acknowledged that and again tried to move to the next topic, but Ardern had more to add about something The AM Show sports presenter Mark Richardson had earlier said.

Before the interview with the Prime Minister, Richardson said changes to the sentencing guidelines were "just another one of their hare-brain schemes they have come up with to try and hit some numbers leading up to the election".

"They want to reduce the prison population so they have come up with this one which is just ludicrous, and the majority of the country is going to say 'are you quite serious?'," Richardson said.

"I am all for drug addicts getting the help they need but it is not an excuse for your crime. If your crime is serious enough to see you put away, then Corrections should be Corrections. As part of Corrections, that is where the addiction gets treated.

"So spend some money on getting these rehab programmes in our jails in a better way than they already are, in a more effective way than they already are and give these people the treatment where they should be receiving it and that is away from society because they are a risk as they sit right now."

Replying to his "rant", Ardern said the Government had put "over $100 million in the last Budget to improve and increase the drug and alcohol rehabilitation within the Correction system".

"Despite your little rant there that this was about the Coalition Government, the decision made by the Court of Appeal has nothing to do with us and nothing to with prison population," the Prime Minister said. 

Richardson said his point was that the outcomes of the Court of Appeal decision would have a lot to do with the Government, to which Ardern said: "it affects us, but it wasn't our decision".

The Court of Appeal decision has been welcomed by criminal law experts. James Rapley QC said it recognised addiction as a health concern. 

"This is important because it reflects a greater awareness that methamphetamine addiction is a serious health concern that cannot be addressed by traditional ways of punishment."

The AM Show / Newshub reporter Jamie Ensor