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Issue No. 410 February 2017

Best outcomes, not bus tickets

As the government works to include most 17-year-old offenders in the youth justice system, the highest-profile advocate of change explains why it matters.

Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft says Youth Aid can help turn young offenders’ lives around.

Far from being “kumbaya-singing, Milo-drinking, slap-on-the-wrist-with-a wet-bus-ticket policing”, the system really works, says Judge Andrew Becroft, Children’s Commissioner and former Principal Youth Court Judge.

But, he concedes, it’s misunderstood and beset by myths.

“It’s a very flexible, nuanced system which must do two things – firstly hold youth offenders to account and encourage them to accept responsibility for their actions; and secondly address the underlying causes so they don’t reoffend.”

Judge Becroft says the change – to be enacted by 2019 - is an opportunity to keep people out of the criminal justice pipeline, particularly Maori offenders who comprised 63 percent of Youth Court clients at the end of 2015.

“There are 1.12 million under-18s in New Zealand - 24 percent of the population - and that’s likely to increase.

“It’s a crucial age developmentally. The ‘cuff ’em and stuff ’em’ mentality is visionless for an age group where we have the chance to turn lives around.”

The system must be flexible: “Some 15-year-olds are built like All Blacks and seem incredibly mature. But some 18-year-olds are still developmentally very immature.”

He accepts the change will impact on Police resourcing, but says the number of 17-year-olds in the system will not mean a return to the peak of 2007-8. An increase in individual offenders of around 37 percent is anticipated.

“The number of apprehensions has halved in nine years - that’s a great credit to Police. Undoubtedly there will be a need for more Youth Aid officers but the bottom line is we’ll have less to cope with than nine years ago.

“That said, we want to do this as well as we can and can’t cut corners. Things were tough in 2007 and we don’t want to go back there.”

Judge Becroft says youth justice is the ultimate arena for Prevention First - “it’s an age group where differences can be made” – and he is unstinting in praise of Youth Aid.

“It’s unquestionably world-leading. It’s recognised internationally, more so than in New Zealand. I think it’s now seen as the most pivotal and influential part of policing, with enormous potential to turn off the tap of entry into the criminal justice pipeline.”


Myths busted

It’s soft!
Under the changes, the most serious 17-year-old offenders will go straight to District Court. At present, around 20 to 30 of the most serious youth offenders are transferred to District Court for sentence annually.

Youth court sentences themselves are significant, including up to six months in a youth justice residence, followed by mandatory 12 months’ supervision, and possibly 12 months’ drug and alcohol monitoring. “That’s a more effective package than can be imposed by the District Court.”

It’s ineffective!
Around 80 percent of young offenders are diverted from the criminal justice system. More than half dealt with by Alternative Action do not reoffend, and a large majority of those who do, do so with reduced frequency and seriousness.

“There’s a very high success rate with young people dealt with in the community. Court is the last place you’d want to bring most young offenders but we can turn their lives around working with them in the community.”

It’s secret!
Youth Court is closed to the public but not to the media, who can apply to cover a case but cannot publicise details identifying offenders or victims.

“It’s a balancing exercise between the public’s right to know and the right of sometimes vulnerable children to not be subjected to the glare of the media, and to put their offending behind them.”

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