Tonia Ashleigh BENNETT 21/8/2020
Under section 21(1) of the Parole Act 2002
Tonia Ashleigh BENNETT
Hearing: 21 August 2020
at Arohata Prison via AVL to NZPB Offices
Members of the Board: Mr N Trendle (Panel Convenor), Associate Professor P Brinded, Mr B McMurray, Mr C King
Counsel: Ms J Fyfe
Support Persons: (withheld)
DECISION OF THE BOARD
- Tonia Ashleigh Bennett was sentenced on 23 July 2010 to life imprisonment for the murder of Mrs Chapman on 20 January 2009. She was also convicted of arson arising from the same event. The Judge imposed a minimum period of imprisonment of 11 years, six months. She has completed serving that term and is making her first appearance before the Board for parole to be considered.
- Her offending arose in the context of a disagreement with her then boyfriend. It resulted in Ms Bennett, together with a co‑offender, setting fire to the property occupied by her boyfriend. He was out. Regrettably, his mother was in the house and did not survive the fire.
- Ms Bennett was 16 years of age at the time she offended. Her early years in prison following her sentencing were marked by misconducts and aggressive behaviour towards others. She also accumulated an IDU 3 status. Her last misconduct, involving controlled drugs, was however in early 2011.
- Ms Bennett attended the Kimihia programme but was discharged from the programme at the first attempt. She returned to complete the programme in June last year and in February of this year she graduated from the Drug Treatment Programme. Her participation in those programmes, preceded by several drug and alcohol interventions, appeared to have marked a turning point in Ms Bennett’s time in prison. Eight misconducts in 2018 reduced to three last year, and no misconducts this year are indicative of that progress.
- Ms Fyfe appeared as counsel and observed that Ms Bennett had entered custody as a child, and had since grown into an adult. She submitted there was evidence of significant change before the Board following her participation in the Kimihia and Drug Treatment In particular, this had enabled her to confront and deal with her aggression and hostility. She now had a different approach to dealing with challenges that lay before her. She had a release plan that involved her acceptance by (withheld) and had been engaging with the (withheld) coordinator for some time. She also had the support of (withheld), who had been involved for a lengthy period with Ms Bennett and, together with others, was available to support her along the way ahead. Ms Fyfe submitted that Ms Bennett should be permitted to engage in reintegration activities and have the opportunity to return to the Board in 12 months.
- Prior to the hearing, the Board received submissions from Ms Bennett’s victim’s family. Those submissions were seen but not retained by Ms Bennett as required by the Parole Act. She told us that she accepted there was still work for her to do on herself. She retained feelings of shame and remorse about her offending. She had earlier raised with the psychologist whether she could participate in a restorative justice meeting with the family of her victim. The advice she received was to wait until she had made further progress with her rehabilitation. Ms Bennett said, having completed that work, she is now motivated to engage in restorative justice if and when the family of her victim wanted it.
- The Board has received a psychological assessment dated 15 June 2020. The report outlined Ms Bennett’s background and events leading up to her offending. Her history of substance abuse was identified. She was assessed as falling within a group of offenders who posed a moderate risk of reoffending. Her completion of several rehabilitation programmes was noted as was the improvement in her conduct, though subject to occasional lapse. The psychologist recommended that she should have multiple opportunities to participate in graduated reintegration activities and that her safety plan should be regularly reviewed.
- The Board acknowledges the very significant progress Ms Bennett has made since she came to prison as a 16 year-old. It is, in our view, now appropriate for her to participate in reintegration activities at a measured pace, along the general lines that were presented to the Board today. That would involve, in due course, a transfer to the self‑care units, to work outside the wire, and ultimately to Release to Work. We note she is continuing to maintain contact with the coordinator at (withheld).
- Parole today is declined. Ms Bennett acknowledged that she was not yet ready to be considered for release. We accept the submission made by Ms Fyfe that the appropriate time frame for her to return to the Board is 12 months. Accordingly, she will be seen again by 31 August 2021. We endorse the recommendation made in the psychologist’s report.
Mr N Trendle