POLITICS WEEK: Boot Camps for Young Offenders?

By Anonymous

On the 13th August, the National party revealed its plan for serious young offenders if re-elected. While New Zealand's youth justice system has been relatively successful, with youth conviction rates down by 45% since 2011,[1] National says this new policy is to keep the New Zealand public safe by cracking down on “a small group of 150 young people who continue to commit large numbers of serious offences”.[2]National’s new policy consists essentially of three prongs:

  1. Instant fines of $200 for parents of under-14s unsupervised on the streets between 12am-5am.
  2. Establishment of a Young Serious Offenders (YSO) category. This includes a Defence-led Junior Training Academy at Waiouru Military Camp.
  3. $30m for community groups to support programmes to reduce re-offending.

The prong that requires the most scrutiny and critique is the proposed establishment of the YSO category and the accompanying military camps. The essential question is: is this a policy based on experience and research, that will help those serious youth offenders to reintegrate into society in a meaningful way? Or is this a dog-whistle tactic trying to get votes by appealing to New Zealanders’ penal populism tendency?73% of youth offenders have been subject of Child, Youth and Family (CYF) notifications indicating concerns of abuse or neglect at some point in their lives.[3] Offenders often come from transient, unstable single parent backgrounds, with little or no contact with their father. Many have familial connections with other offenders. Among youth offenders there are trends of high unemployment rates and low educational achievements. Young offenders often have poor social skills with many suffering psychological disorders, learning disabilities, addictions and mental illnesses.[4] It is important that any new strategy addresses the fundamental causes that drive youth offending as research continues to show that imprisonment alone has little deterrent effect on future offending.[5]The object of the Children’s and Young People’s Well-being Act 1989 is to promote the well-being of children and young people, in addition to providing for youth justice.[6] The Act sets out principles which our youth justice system is to be based on, principally the diversion and decarceration of young people. [7]There are three important principles in the Act which National’s new policy would potentially cut across: keeping the young person in the community as far as is practical and in line with public safety; not instituting criminal proceedings against a young person if there is an alternative means of dealing with the matter; and that any sanctions imposed on a young person should take the least restrictive form possible and a form which is most likely to maintain and promote the development of the child within their whanau and community. [8] YSO ClassificationTo be classified as a YSO the youth must have:

  • Committed an offence which carries a maximum sentence of fourteen years in jail or more; and
  • Score 70 points or more on the Police Youth Offending Risk Screening Tool (YORST); and
  • Seriously offended subsequent to spending time in a Youth Justice or Adult Custodial Facility.[9]

Judges retain discretion to consider others for this system outside of the above criteria who may pose a significant risk.When a youth is classified as a Young Serious Offender, certain rights (which promoted the above-mentioned principles) are suspended. National’s new policy for young serious offenders proposes tougher penalties, the removal of the requirement of 3 warnings for breach of bail conditions before arrest and/or returning offender to court and increasing the jurisdiction of the youth court for YSOs to serve 12 months in youth justice facilities. While the full policy document is available on their site, the three which are of special concern are the automatic transfer of YSOs of 14 or older who commit subsequent serious offences into the adult court system; the use of military camps; and the ending of early releases from Youth Justice Facilities. Instead of diverting and helping our young people away from the criminal justice system, these policies will widen the prison pipelines. The automatic transfer of YSOs of 14 or older who commit subsequent serious offences into the adult court systemThe Youth advocacy Justspeak released a report regarding extending the Youth Court jurisdiction to 17 years old. The report cited evidence that the longer young people are prevented from entering the adult system, the less likely they are to re-offend. It also found that in six different studies the youth who were transferred from the youth court system to the adult criminal system were 34% more likely than youth retained in the youth court system to be re-arrested for violent or other crime. Another study which used “a matched pairs sample design” found that when comparing youth that had been transferred to an adult facility with youth who remained in youth facilities, the former were more likely to re-offend in a violent way after turning 18. [10]Allowing youth as young as 14 to be tried in our adult court system would put New Zealand further out of step with its international obligations. New Zealand’s current system of trying 17-year-olds in the adult court system and sending them to prison is in breach of its obligations under the United Nations Convention of the Rights of a Child. The UNROC defines child as “every human being below the age of eighteen years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier”. [11] The United Nations Rights of Children’s committee's fifth report called on New Zealand to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility to comply with international standards.[12] Children’s commissioner and former Principle Youth Court Judge called the practice of trying 17 year olds as adults “a stain” on our system.[13] The United Nation’s report also criticized New Zealand’s reservation to art 37(c) which is to ensure that all children deprived of liberty are separated from adults in all places of detention. [14] Youth campsUnder the new policy, Judges will be able to suspend adult sentences for YSOs and send them to a defence-led Junior Training Academy for up to 1 year. The National party states “The Academy will support YSOs to address problems like addiction or a lack of literacy and numeracy skills, helping them lead better lives while keeping the public safe.”[15] If the youth fails to complete their time at the Academy, they will serve a corresponding adult sentence of imprisonment instead. While $30 million will be allocated to fund the YSO scheme[16], there is little evidence that supports the effectiveness of youth military camps in rehabilitating young offenders.This is not the first time that the National Government has attempted to use youth camps on young offenders. It introduced Military Activity Camps (MAC) in 2010 intending to target the most serious and repeat young offenders. A 2015 report from the Ministry of development found that half of the MAC graduates had re-offended within four months of exiting the residence. Within 12 months, 86% had re-offended.[17] The report did state that there was a drop in the seriousness of the crimes committed after the MAC but graduates were only monitored for 12 months after the camp. Whakapakari Youth Trust camp, which was also government funded, has been investigated for allegations of severe physical and sexual abuse. In 2006, CYF did a formal study of the 60 boys who had attended the camp in 2004. It found that only one in five had not offended, and 61 per cent had since gained multiple convictions.[18] No more early releasesThe current policy is that a young person is entitled to an early release after two-thirds of the order if the Youth Court is satisfied that:

  • the young person has not absconded or committed any further offences; and
  • their behaviour and compliance have been satisfactory (or any misbehaviour or non-compliance has been minor); and
  • they have complied satisfactorily with specified programmes/activities.[19]

This early release is subject to supervision with residence order. The new policy would disqualify any youth with a YSO classification from early release. This new policy seems to go against the principles of the New Zealand youth justice system of encouraging the decarceration of young people, keeping them in their communities and making sure sanctions are the least restrictive possible. There is no evidence that keeping young offenders in facilities longer will keep the public safer. A Canadian study indicated that longer prison sentences potentially increase the chance of re-offending. [20] Maori and the YSO programmeIn determining the likelihood of recidivism, the YORST system includes family and community factors such as poverty, family history of criminal activity and CYF referrals. [21] The proposed YSO classification would require 70 points on the YORST system. This has the potential to create discrimination, as people from marginalised lower socio-economic communities will have a higher chance of meeting that threshold and being classified as YSOs.Maori are disproportionately affected by these factors as many are born to single-parent households and Māori continue to be on the lower end of socioeconomic indicators.[22] Any policy that affects the amount of youth in custody will disproportionately affect māori youth and likely increase the number of Maori we see in prison. While the number of youth charged in court rates have dropped generally over the past 5 years, the proportion of young Māori who have been charged has increased by 9%.[23] This is not addressed in National’s new policy.On a personal note, I wanted to talk about my brother Campbell. He is sixteen, he loves dancing and he loves martial arts. He is the youngest in the family, so we always make fun of him. He is the sweetest boy you will ever meet. However, last month my parents were told by my brother’s psychologist that if it was not for the support he had received he may have ended up in the criminal justice system. My brother has never had a run in with the police but he does have severe ADHD and oppositional defiant disorder. These learning disabilities have affected him his whole life, making it hard for my parents to discipline him and making it difficult for him to do well in school. My family has been able to take him to a psychologist to help him work through his disability. Luckily for my brother, he was born into a family that recognised his learning difficulties at an early stage, with a father who is able to take time in the afternoons to tutor him, and a mother that was able to reduce her hours when my brother really needed her at home. My brother was born into a family that not only loved him but had the resources to help him. While I may not have the solution for the perfect youth justice system, the current system would likely have failed my brother and has failed many of our young people.New Zealand’s general tough-on-crime approach has led to record prisoner numbers and  the seventh highest incarceration rate in the OECD.[24]  National’s new policy encourages this ‘tough-on-crime’ approach yet again with no strategies on how to address crime's fundamental causes. New Zealand cannot continue to create new policies that will only increase our prison populations. We need to start with how we treat our youth, addressing the dysfunctional circumstances in their lives that may have brought them into the youth justice system and which will continue to affect them once they are released from youth facilities.


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[1] Ministry of Justice Trends in Child and Youth Prosecutions (December 2016).[2] National Party “National’s plan for serious young offenders” (press release, 13 August 2017).[3] Andrew Becroft “It’s All Relative: the Absolute Importance of the Family in Youth Justice (a New Zealand Perspective) (Paper delivered at the World Congress on Juvenile Justice, Geneva, Switzerland, January 2015) at 26.[4] Alison Cleland and Khylee Quince Youth Justice in Aotearoa New Zealand – Law, Policy and Critique (1st ed, LexisNexis NZ Ltd, Wellington, 2014) at 48.[5] JustSpeak Unlocking Prisons How We Can Improve New Zealand’s Prison System (JustSpeak, 2014) at 19.[6] Children’s and Young People’s Well-being Act 1989, s 4.[7] Section 5.[8] Section 208.[9] National Party, above n 2.[10] JustSpeak Extending the jurisdiction of the Youth Court (JustSpeak, May 2016) at 9.[11] UN General Assembly, Convention on the Rights of the Child GA Res 44/25 (1989), art 1.[12] UN Committee on the Rights of the Child Concluding observations on the fifth periodic report of New Zealand (United Nations, CRC/C/NZL/CO/5, October 2016 at 45(a).[13] Di White “The NZ justice system chucks 17-year-olds in with adults, and it is a stain on our reputation” (13 September 2016) The Spinoff <www.thespinoff.co.nz>.[14] UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, above n 12, at 45(b).[15] National Party, above n 2.[16] National Party, above n 2.[17] Ministry of Social Development Reoffending patterns of Military-style Activity Camp graduates: 2015 update (September 2016).[18] Matt Nippert “The lost boys of the Barrier” The New Zealand Herald (online ed, Auckland, 7 October 2016).[19] National Party “Youth Justice Policy Announcement” (press release, 13 August, 2017) at 4.[20] JustSpeak Unlocking Prisons How We Can Improve New Zealand’s Prison System (JustSpeak, 2014) at 19.[21] Dr Elaine Mossman Research to Validate the New Zealand Police Youth Offending Risk Screening Tool (YORST) Phase 1: Screening and Assessment of Young Offenders Risk of Recidivism: Literature Review (New Zealand Police, 2010) at 27.[22] Ministry of Health “Ngā awe o te hauora: Socioeconomic determinants of health” (8 October 2015) Ministry of Health <www.health.govt.nz>.[23] Ministry of Justice, above n 1.[24] “Incarceration rates in OECD countries as of 2017” (May 2017, Statista) <www.statista.com>.