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National pushes for tougher sentences for gangs after Ōpōtiki gang tangi procession

Author
Adam Pearse,
Publish Date
Sun, 18 Jun 2023, 2:19pm

National pushes for tougher sentences for gangs after Ōpōtiki gang tangi procession

Author
Adam Pearse,
Publish Date
Sun, 18 Jun 2023, 2:19pm

National is announcing a new policy intended to give gang members tougher criminal sentences, just days after two Bay of Plenty towns had to accommodate a large Mongrel Mob funeral procession that led to schools closing, a highway being shut off and a police investigation into gunshots.

National leader Christopher Luxon is denying he is politicising the death of Mongrel Mob Barbarians president Steven Taiatini on June 9, which prompted hundreds of mob members to travel to Ōpōtiki ahead of the tangi in Whakatāne on Wednesday.

Labour’s police spokesperson Ginny Andersen says Luxon has “embarrassed himself” with policy she considers a “lazy” rehash of old National policy and claims he is “pretending to be tough” on gangs.

The policy is identical to what New Zealand First promised in March. National promised this change as part of its 2020 election campaign.

Fears of retribution after Taiatini’s death caused local schools to close and stopped public transport. An extra 50 police officers were deployed to Ōpōtiki to provide “community reassurance”.

State Highway 2 between Ōpōtiki and Whakatāne, was closed because of the convoy, which featured hundreds of motorbikes, cars, utes and vans. Many barked and others yelled “seig heil” as they shot past.

Throughout the week, Opposition politicians and some media commentators criticised what they perceived as a lack of action by police. Local officers had repeatedly denied they did not have control, saying some media had blown the situation out of proportion.

Comments from National leader Christopher Luxon and Prime Minister Chris Hipkins prompted Te Pāti Māori co-leader Rawiri Waititi to declare the pair should “keep my iwi [Te Whakatōhea] out of your mouth” and accused them of using the people of Ōpōtiki as a “political football”.

National leader Christopher Luxon unveils a new crime policy at a press conference in central Auckland. Photo / Alex Burton

National leader Christopher Luxon unveils a new crime policy at a press conference in central Auckland. Photo / Alex Burton

Today in Auckland, Luxon announced National would make being a member of a gang an aggravating factor if they were being sentenced, with the intention that convicted gang members would face “tougher consequences” for their crimes.

This would be achieved through a change to the Sentencing Act 2002.

The legislation currently included the connection between a person’s offending and the person’s “participation in an organised criminal group” as an aggravating factor.

Under a National Government, this policy would mean gang membership would always be an aggravating factor, regardless of the offence committed.

“National believes the visible presence of gangs in communities can lead to prolonged fear and intimidation for victims who have suffered at the hands of gang-related offences,” Luxon said.

“By making gang membership an aggravating factor, judges will be required to consider this when determining a sentence. In practice, it means offenders who are known members of criminal gangs will likely face tougher sentences for crime.”

Speaking to journalists, Luxon rejected any suggestion the policy had been accelerated by the events in Ōpōtiki and denied Waititi’s claim the situation was being used as a political football.

“It’s not just about Ōpōtiki, this has been something that we’ve been talking about for a long time, so please don’t mistake this, this is not about politicising Ōpōtiki at all.”

Luxon told the Herald the National Gang List would be used to determine who was and wasn’t a gang member. Concerns regarding the limitations of that list had been aired regularly with gang expert Dr Jarrod Gilbert telling RNZ in 2021 the list could be “double the reality”.

There would also be a test used when gang associates appeared in court. For those who claimed to have left a gang, Luxon said it would be their responsibility to argue that in court.

Hundreds of gang members headed to the Bay of Plenty last week for a tangi. Photo / Andrew Warner

Hundreds of gang members headed to the Bay of Plenty last week for a tangi. Photo / Andrew Warner

National justice spokesperson Paul Goldsmith said the normal Bill of Rights process would be applied, but the change indicated a preference towards public safety over the rights of gang members.

According to the latest quarterly Gang Harm Insights Report, there were 8875 gang members across 33 gangs on the police’s National Gang List - a percentage increase of about 10 per cent from August last year.

“Gangs have been an unwelcome part of New Zealand’s criminal landscape for decades, but in recent years, their numbers and the level of violence they perpetrate have seen a significant and alarming rise,” Luxon said.

“Just this week we have seen gang members effectively take control of the town Ōpōtiki, forcing schools to close and bus services to be cancelled. This is unacceptable.”

National had already announced several policies that would target gangs, including banning gang patches in public places. The party would also boost police powers to enable warrantless searches to find guns held by gang members, to prevent gang members from communicating and to restrict their public meetings.

In a statement, Andersen cited the sentencing of Mongrel Mob West Coast chapter president Turanganui John Ormsby-Turner for the killing of Rei Joseph Tumatauinga Maihi Marshall.

In March, Justice Churchman said one of the several aggravating factors was Ormsby-Turner’s gang involvement - something Andersen pointed to as evidence National’s policy was unnecessary.

“The law as it stands says sentencing must take into account being in a gang or organised crime group as an aggravated factor in sentencing. National are simply proposing a technical tweak.”

While she repeated her view that it was lazy policy, Andersen wouldn’t say whether she believed National was politicising the events in Ōpōtiki.

She confirmed Labour had not contemplated making a similar change to the Sentencing Act, saying she couldn’t see how it would add any value.

In a social media post, Labour justice spokesperson Kiri Allan said “locking people up and throwing away the key is exactly what gangs want”.

“They want NZers to pay for their university of crime.”

Also on social media, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters welcomed National’s adoption of his party’s position.

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