Youth justice – not a “soft” option

Justice Minister the Hon Amy Adams pulled no punches at ADLS’s second annual “Breakfast with the Minister of Justice” held at the Northern Club late last month speaking to her chosen theme of the morning – youth crime.

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While “not naive enough to think that any iteration of legislation, policies, processes or programmes would end crime”, Minister Adams considers that, as a community, there is much we can do to reduce it. She is a firm believer in the need to “understand what precipitates crime” in order to understand what interventions will be effective.

Part of the key to such understanding, in her view, is making effective use of the “vast treasure trove of data” that the various agencies and departments working in the social sector now have available to them. Appropriate cross-agency sharing of such data (i.e. on a de-identified basis) can identify risks and trends, enabling “investment ahead of demand” and a focus of resources in the areas where they will have maximum impact – for example, youth offending, family and sexual violence, Māori over-representation and criminal gangs.

“We have to be able to show with a high degree of likelihood what will happen without intervention and the impact the proposed intervention will have. That can only happen with well-developed, robust data modelling.”

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Youth offending – an early wake-up call

Youth offending is one such area where the Minister wants to ensure that positive change continues to occur. With some 73 per cent of the adult prison population the subject of a CYF notification during their childhood, compared to less than three per cent of the general population, issues that occur in childhood can send clear early warning signals for problems later on in life. As Minister Adams says:

“Those who start offending early commit more crimes than first-time adult offenders. One study which investigated offending patterns of people born in New Zealand in 1978 revealed that 80 per cent of convictions went to those who had their first conviction before they were 20. If we don’t deal well with young offenders, we can almost guarantee they will be clients of the system for years to come, and many more victims will be created as a result, so we simply have to do all we can to firstly stop young people ever offending, and then for those that do, ensure we do all we can to stop that ongoing cycle of reoffending from ever beginning.”

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National Youth Dataset

The Minister was excited about the possibilities presented by a new “National Youth Dataset”, which has been 14 years in the pipeline. Information is collected and comparable across agencies, making it easier for decisionmakers to determine trends in crime commission and assess how people are moving through the youth justice system, how well goals are being achieved and where more effort is needed.

“We can now use data about serious and persistent young offenders to get a better idea of the numbers who have complex needs, and who are at risk of becoming adult offenders. This is intuitive for those of you working in the sector, but we now can prove it. It’s telling us that not only has the number of young people in court dropped, but we’ve also been very successful in reducing the number of youth with complex needs or persistent offending.”

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Youth Court – not a cake walk

When looking at the data, she says that there is “no doubt” that the Youth Court is “having a significant effect”, citing decreasing offending rates for both Pakeha and Māori youth aged 14-16 years (between 2010 and 2015), and noting that the rate of Youth Court appearances has also dropped.

“So if the system works for victims, tracks past offending, properly holds offenders to account and has been shown to reduce future offending, it puzzles me why it is still viewed as a soft and ineffective option by some.”

“In case any of you are thinking that those numbers are just because Police are choosing not to arrest and charge young people, the real benefit is also showing up in adult court where the numbers of 17-18 year old offenders appearing is declining at a similar rate, showing that fewer young people are ‘graduating’ to the adult system.”

Interestingly, although figures show that offending rates have dropped for all target groups, as figures for Māori youth offending are reducing less quickly (declining by 50 per cent as compared with a 62 per cent reduction for non-Māori), Māori over-representation figures continue to deteriorate. “We are to some extent a victim of our success and of our statistics,” Ms Adams said.

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Rangatahi and Pasifika Courts

The relatively new Rangatahi and Pasifika Court initiatives go some way towards trying to address this disparity. These courts aim to better address youth offending by involving communities and culture in the youth justice process, with hearings taking place on marae in the presence of community representatives and kaumātua.

Despite the differences in process and setting as compared to traditional courts, the same legal rules apply. The Minister described the experience of having to stand up and own up to wrongful actions in such a setting as “powerful, daunting and hopefully life-changing”, with 1100 young people having done just that since 2008. Statistics are similarly encouraging, with 14 per cent fewer young people reoffending and 11 per cent less likely to commit a serious offence in the following year than comparable youth.

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Youth justice “myths”

The Minister is clearly frustrated by the way New Zealand’s youth justice system is often portrayed in media sound bites, and how this in turn has engendered an unfounded view amongst some that the Youth Court is “soft and ineffective” and does not hold young people accountable for their actions.

“It does concern me that there is a lack of awareness at what our youth justice system does, its purpose and effectiveness – that risks undermining its very success. New Zealand actually has a strong story to tell. That doesn’t mean we’ve got it nailed by any means but it does mean we are seeing very strong results and much of the rest of the world is looking at what we are doing and seeking to emulate it,” said the Minister.

The Youth Court’s acknowledged focus on rehabilitation does not lose sight of the importance of accountability, and young offenders’ actions do not go unpunished. Youth Court orders remain on an offender’s record, and as Youth Court judges are also District Court judges, they have a wide range of sentencing options open to them, including sentencing in the District Court as an adult (if appropriate) for dangerous or serial offending.

In fact, given that a youth offender could potentially receive not only a custodial sentence, but also a follow-up period of supervision and the requirement of participating in a drug and alcohol/mentoring programme, they could end up serving a longer or more intensive overall sentence than might have been received by an adult in the District Court.

The Minister considers that practitioners have a role to play in the youth justice conversation, and encouraged those present to do their part in debunking misapprehensions about the effectiveness of the system.

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