Life imprisonment in New Zealand

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Life imprisonment has been the most severe criminal sentence in New Zealand since the death penalty was abolished in 1989. Life imprisonment is mandatory for treason; it is the usual sentence for murder; it may be imposed for manslaughter and Class A drug dealing. Parole is not granted automatically. Offenders sentenced to life imprisonment or preventive detention may die of old age in prison, but this is rare as most are paroled. Released offenders remain on parole for the rest of their life.[1]

Since the Sentencing Act 2002 came into force, life imprisonment must be imposed for murder unless it would be "manifestly unjust".[2] Cases where it might be unjust involve mercy killings, failed suicide pacts, and "battered defendants" who were subjected to "prolonged and severe abuse".[3] Life imprisonment was mandatory for all cases of murder from 1962 (when the death penalty for murder was abolished) to 2002.

The minimum period of imprisonment for murder is 10 years, or 17 years for serious cases, including those involving a high level of violence, premeditated murder, contract killing, multiple/serial murder, the murder of a police officer or public official, and home invasion. If the case warrants it, the sentencing judge may fix a longer minimum period of imprisonment or, in the most extreme cases, set no minimum period of imprisonment, which means that the offender will spend the remainder of their life in prison without parole. If the offender was aged under 18 at the time of the crime, they must have a minimum period of imprisonment; they cannot be sentenced to serve life imprisonment without parole.[4] To date, only three people in New Zealand have been sentenced to life in prison without parole.[citation needed]

The longest minimum period of imprisonment on a sentence of life imprisonment is 30 years, currently being served by William Dwane Bell, who shot dead the Panmure RSA club president, a club member and the club's cleaner, and also seriously injured another club employee during an armed robbery at the Panmure RSA clubrooms on December 8, 2001. Bell was initially jailed for a minimum period of imprisonment of 33 years, which was reduced by three years on appeal.[5]

The longest minimum period of imprisonment imposed for a single murder was 26 years, which was given to Liam James Reid, who raped and murdered Emma Agnew in Christchurch in November 2007, but this was reduced to 23 years on appeal.[6]

The longest minimum period of imprisonment for a woman is 19 years, currently being served by Tracy Jean Goodman for the murder of pensioner Mona Morriss in the course of a burglary in Marton in January 2005.[7]

Preventive detention[edit]

There is also provision for an indefinite sentence of preventive detention, which is handed out for crimes other than treason, murder or manslaughter; since 2002, this has been given to repeat sexual offenders and serious violent recidivist offenders. Preventive detention has a minimum period of imprisonment of five years, but the sentencing judge can extend this if they believe that the prisoner's history warrants it.

The longest minimum period of imprisonment on a sentence of preventive detention is one of 26 years, being served by convicted killer Graeme Burton, who murdered two people and injured four others between 1992 and 2007.[8] No women have yet been sentenced to preventive detention.


  1. ^ "FAQ". New Zealand Parole Board. Retrieved 9 October 2013. 
  2. ^ "Section 102". Sentencing Act 2002. 5 March 2012. Retrieved 10 June 2012. 
  3. ^ Chhana, Rajesh; Spier, Philip; Roberts, Susan; Hurd, Chris (March 2004). The Sentencing Act 2002: Monitoring the First Year. pp. 13–14. Retrieved 10 June 2012. 
  4. ^ Sentencing Act 2002, section 103 (2B)
  5. ^ "Record sentence for RSA murders". Television New Zealand. February 13, 2003. Retrieved 2009-03-09. 
  6. ^ "Convicted rapist and murderer's sentence reduced". 7 July 2009. Retrieved 27 September 2009. 
  7. ^ "Female murderer to appeal record sentence". The Dominion Post. 7 May 2008. Retrieved 27 September 2009. 
  8. ^ "New Zealand's longest non-parole periods". The New Zealand Herald. 1 February 2008. Retrieved 2010-01-08.