Ignoring Evidence, Rights and Safety

Khylee Quince

What a short memory this government has. This week NZ Justice Minister Amy Adams has unveiled a “serious young offenders” policy that resorts to the age-old chestnuts of militarized boot camps, targeting of parents and negative labelling of children and young people. All of these strategies fit squarely within a “tough on crime” agenda of popular punitiveness – hardly surprising in an election year, but flying in the face of both international research about what works and international standards to which New Zealand is accountable.

The “new” policy is targeted at a purported group of around 150 “serious young offenders” and will allow judges to send up to 50 of them to a boot camp at Waiouru for up to a year. Sound familiar? The National government rolled out the same rhetoric and similar initiatives with its Fresh Start policy for serious young offenders in 2009, including the Military Activity Camps, Court-Supervised Camps and Community Youth Programmes. An evaluation of the Military Activity Camps in 2012 showed a 61% reoffending rate within six months of attending the camp, with 10 offenders committing 126 crimes between them within that six month period. Young people referred to rehabilitation programmes had a 72% six month reoffending rate. There is no local or international evidence that boot camp interventions work, and a lot of evidence that they do not.

This new package also echoes the language of 2009 in its characterization of young people who engage in offending behaviours as “dangerous”. The extension of Youth Court jurisdiction in 2010 to certain 12 and 13 year olds was purportedly a response to the same hardcore group of around 100 offenders the government and police labelled as “serious” and “dangerous”, who they argued would be more appropriately dealt with in Youth Court rather than the Family Court. In reality, there have only been 12-15 prosecutions of 12 and 13 year olds since this amendment – demonstrating that the response was a sensationalized moral panic, using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

The government also seems to have amnesia in respect of the scathing comments and recommendations of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, released only ten months ago. Reviewing the New Zealand government’s performance in relation to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Committee expressed “serious concern” about a number of institutional and policy measures adopted in relation to New Zealand children and young people in the five-year review period. Of particular relevance to this latest pronouncement was their recommendation in paragraph 7(b) that the government “avoid the categorization of children, in law and policy, which may lead to stigmatization.” The labelling of a child as a “serious young offender” deliberately ignores the advice of the world’s leading authority tasked with protecting the rights of children and young people.

The new policy also ignores the vulnerability, safety and wellbeing of the children and young people who offend. Seventy three percent of offenders in our youth justice system have been the subject of CYFS (now the Ministry for Vulnerable Children) notifications, meaning there have been concerns about abuse or neglect in their lives. Separation of these children from their families to live in a boot camp does not address the dire and dysfunctional circumstances from which many of them come; neither does issuing their parents with an instant fine. Recent publicity has exposed the very serious abuse young offenders were exposed to at the state funded Whakapakari boot camp on Great Barrier Island over the three decades of its operation from the 1970s. There is no need to “get tough” on kids who have been doing it tough their whole lives, for whom physical abuse is normalized, but aroha, support and affirmation is not. As former Principal Youth Court Judge (and now Commissioner for Children) Andrew Becroft said in 2015, our responses to these young people need to overcome the “unhelpful, rigorous split” between youth justice and care and protection – they are largely the same children.

Finally, there is no mention of the Elephant in the Room – the significant over-representation of Maori in youth offending data – the only demographic whose proportion of offending is rising, against a general trend of falling youth crime. The impact of government laws and policies affecting children, young people and their whanau is not neutral. Maori young people are at the pointy end of poverty, under-education and negative health indicators in this country. A compassionate and effective youth justice system needs to acknowledge and respond to that national shame, even for the most serious of young offenders.

These strategies are outdated, ineffective, bad politicking – wasting millions of taxpayer dollars that would be better directed to providing comprehensive therapeutic and reintegrative responses to the underlying causes of youth crime. The Minister of Justice would do better to go back to the drawing board and consider both our obligations to children and young people, and also the wealth of research concerning effective responses to youth offending.

Khylee Quince is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Law, at Auckland University of Technology.

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