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Criminal & traffic law

Sentencing: The judge’s decision about punishment

How the judge decides your sentence

Sentencing principles and important factors

Principles of sentencing

Sentencing Act 2002, s 8

When sentencing you, the judge must take into account principles such as:

  • the seriousness of the offending and your degree of blame (“culpability”)
  • the seriousness of the type of offence
  • the effect of the offending on the victim
  • your whānau, community and cultural and socio-economic background.

There is a set approach the judge has to follow in sentencing you.

  • First, the judge has to set a “starting point” that takes into account what happened and your role in the offending. This starting point will include any factors that might make the offending worse and increase the starting point (“aggravating factors of the offending”) and factors that might make the offending less serious and decrease the starting point (“mitigating factors of the offending”).
  • Second, the Judge has to consider whether this starting point should be adjusted, taking into account your wider personal circumstances that might increase the sentence (“aggravating factors of the offender”) or decrease the sentence (“mitigating factors of the offender”). If you pleaded guilty, this will include any reduction for your guilty pleas.
  • After making these adjustments to the starting point, the judge will reach an end sentence, which you will have to serve.

Aggravating factors

Sentencing Act 2002, s 9

In deciding on your particular sentence, the judge will look at factors that might increase the sentence (“aggravating factors”) including:

  • whether the offence involved actual or threatened violence or actual or threatened use of a weapon
  • whether the offence was committed while you were on bail or on parole
  • the extent of any loss, damage or harm resulting from the offence
  • any particular cruelty in carrying out of the offence
  • whether you took advantage of a position of trust or authority in relation to the victim
  • whether the victim was particularly vulnerable because of age or health or any other factor known to you (for example, whether or not children were present)
  • any planning ahead (“premeditation”)
  • any previous convictions.

Mitigating factors

Sentencing Act 2002, s 9

When they sentence you, the judge must also take into account factors that might reduce the sentence (“mitigating factors”) including:

  • your age
  • if and when you pleaded guilty
  • the conduct of the victim
  • whether you have diminished intellectual capacity or understanding. This doesn’t cover situations where at the time of committing the offence you were affected by alcohol or any drug or other substance (unless medically prescribed)
  • if you’ve shown that you’re sorry (shown “remorse”)
  • any evidence of your good character.

Sentencing Act 2002, s 10

The judge is also required to take into account your offers or actions to make amends (putting it right) to the victim. This might include apologies, compensation or the performance of work or service.

Sentencing Act 2002, s 30

Note: A judge cannot impose a sentence of imprisonment unless you have received legal advice, or have been given the opportunity to receive legal advice but turned it down.

Cultural factors

Sentencing Act 2002, s 27

You can ask the court to hear from any person or people you want to call on to speak about your background and how this might be relevant to your offending. This can include your cultural or community background, your family/whānau background and your personal background. You will have to pay for the costs involved in making the report.

The person you ask to speak for you could be, for example, a member of your family/whānau, or a kaumātua, minister, elder or community worker.

The court can refuse your request only if it’s satisfied that for some special reason this would be unnecessary or inappropriate.

The person or people you call on can also talk about any Restorative Justice or other processes that have been tried (or could be tried) involving you, the victim of your offending and your family/whānau to resolve issues relevant to your offending.

They can also talk about what support from your family/whānau or community may be available to prevent you offending again and about how your background or that support could be relevant to the judge in deciding what sentence to impose.

You may be able to get your sentence reduced (a “discount”) if the report shows your offending has in some way happened as a result of your personal and cultural background. This is usually because of some sort of hardship or disadvantage you have experienced.

Reports from probation officers

Sentencing Act 2002, ss 26, 26A

In order to help determine your sentence, the court can ask for a report to be completed.

Stand-down reports

If the offence is a minor one and you plead guilty, sentencing may take place on the same day. The sentence may be given straight away, or a stand-down report may be ordered for sentencing later that day.

The report is prepared by a probation officer and contains information about your personal circumstances and background and about factors relevant to the offending. The report will recommend a particular sentence to the court.

Pre-sentence reports

If sentencing cannot be done on the day, the court will delay sentencing until a pre-sentence report has been prepared. A probation officer will write a report about you and your personal circumstances. In cases where a sentence of home detention or community detention is being considered, information must be included about the suitability of the proposed curfew address or home detention residence, including the safety and welfare of other occupants (“a report with appendices”). It will also include an assessment of your risk of reoffending.

The judge gives this report considerable weight in determining the sentence. These reports contain more detail than stand-down reports. It’s important that you co-operate with probation officers when reports are being prepared, as a failure to co-operate will be reported to the court. These reports are often done closer to sentencing, to include any updated circumstances affecting your situation. You might also have your bail varied requiring you to go and report to your probation officer. Failing to report would mean you’re in breach of your bail and you could be arrested.

“Plea in mitigation” presented by defence lawyer

If you plead guilty, your lawyer can present to the court what’s called a “plea in mitigation”. This tells the judge about any special circumstances that should be taken into account before you’re sentenced.

The aim of a plea in mitigation is to reduce your sentence by highlighting the factors that lessen (“mitigate”) the seriousness of your offence and show that you take responsibility for your actions.

A plea in mitigation will often include details about the following:

  • Your personal circumstances – any relevant personal circumstances at the time you committed the offence. For example:
    • your income (what you earn) and expenses (your bills)
    • any dependants you have
    • your employment history
    • your medical history
    • your living arrangements (where you live and who else lives there).
  • Your response to your offending – what your attitude and response to your offending have been. For example:
    • if you’ve shown that you’re sorry (shown “remorse”)
    • if you’ve accepted responsibility for what you did
    • if you’ve apologised to the victim (if this isn’t a breach of your bail conditions)
    • if you’ve been to counselling
    • if the offending was out of character for you.

Character references can also be included in a plea in mitigation.

Next Section | Fines

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The criminal courts

Where to go for more support

Community Law

Your local Community Law Centre can provide you with free initial legal advice.

Find your local Community Law Centre online: www.communitylaw.org.nz/our-law-centres

Access the free “Lag Law: Your Rights Inside Prison and on Remand” book. This book answers heaps of common questions you might have if you’re going to prison, in prison, or getting out of prison.

Online: communitylaw.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/Lag-Law-text-2021-1.pdf
Email for a hard copy: publications@wclc.org.nz
Phone: Community Law Wellington and Hutt Valley – 04 499 2928

Ministry of Justice

The Ministry of Justice provides useful information about court procedure for criminal matters.

Website: www.justice.govt.nz/courts/criminal

Paying your fines

You can learn about, check or pay your fines (infringement and court-imposed) by phone or online. Unpaid fines can stop you leaving New Zealand – use Ministry of Justice’s fine checks form to find out if you have outstanding debt.

Website: www.justice.govt.nz/fines
Phone: 0800 4 FINES (0800 434 637)

Fine checks form: www.justice.govt.nz/fines/find-out-if-you-have-a-fine-or-check-your-balance-online/fines-check-form

Department of Corrections

The Department of Corrections website has helpful information for offenders and their whānau. It provides insight into the procedure before sentencing, while in prison and on parole.

Website: www.corrections.govt.nz

Restorative Practices Aotearoa

Restorative Practices Aotearoa provides information on when restorative justice may be appropriate, and where in New Zealand it is available.

Website: www.restorativejusticeaotearoa.org.nz
Email: admin@rpa.org.nz
Phone: 0800 RJA INC (0800 752 462)

Information for victims

Victims Information

Victims Information provides help to victims of crime, their whānau or friends to deal with the practical and emotional effects of a crime. It also provides information to help victims understand the legal and court process.

Website: www.victimsinfo.govt.nz
Phone: 0800 650 654

Manaaki Tāngata – Victim Support

Victim Support provides a free, nationwide support service for people affected by crime, trauma, and suicide in New Zealand. They help clients to find safety, healing, and justice after crime and other traumatic events.

Website: www.victimsupport.org.nz
Phone: 0800 VICTIM (0800 842 846)

Victim notifications register

Victim notification gives victims of serious crime, who are registered on the victim notification register, a way to stay informed about the person who offended against them.

Website: www.corrections.govt.nz/information_for_victims/victim_notification_register

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