Story: Youth offenders

Page 1. Youth offenders: who, what and why

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Most young people break the law at some point. On the whole they commit minor crimes (which often go undetected) and they stop misbehaving as they leave adolescence. A large majority of those apprehended and sent to court only appear there once. A small number of young people commit a large proportion of offences.

Ages of offenders

For the purposes of the law, young people are defined as those aged 14–16. They can be charged and prosecuted for an offence and dealt with by the youth justice system. Those aged 17 and over are treated as adults in the general court system. 12-13 year olds may be charged in the Youth Court at the police's discretion when they have allegedly committed very serious offences or are serious repeat offenders.

Children aged 10–11 can only be prosecuted for murder, manslaughter or minor traffic offences. Children under 10 are not held responsible for their actions in the justice system and cannot be prosecuted for any offence.

From 2019 low risk youth offenders under 18 will be dealt with by the Youth Court. Seventeen year olds who are charged with serious and violent offences will be treated as adult offenders. The raising of the youth justice age is consistent with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 which defines a child as anyone under 18 years.

Who offends?

Most youth offenders are male – they comprised 76% of youth apprehensions in 2014. (An apprehension means that a person is dealt with by police, but does not always involve an arrest.) 10- to 13-year-olds made up 23% of apprehensions, while 14–16-year-olds made up the remaining 77%. In 2014, 31% of these offenders were European and 56% Māori.

Changes in youth offending

Changes in data collection methods and definitions of crime make it difficult to tell how youth offending has changed over time. However, community perceptions often conflict with official statistics. Moral panics about young people and criminal activity occur periodically in response to particular offences, but statistics rarely show dramatic changes. Apprehensions of young offenders declined in the 1980s and early 1990s. They increased until 1996, They increased until 1996, but in the early 21st century declined to 1980s levels. Further significant declines occurred in the 2010s. Those under 16 years old were only 3% of those charged in the High Court, the Youth Court or in district courts in 2015. Most of young people charged were 15 – 16 years old.

Blossoms and bad behaviour

In 1960 the float parade of the Hastings Blossom Festival was cancelled because of wet weather. An influx of youths, over-crowded hotels and the use of fire hoses to control the crowds was a bad combination. The press described the resulting conflict between youths and authorities as a riot, and nationwide moral panic over the state of young people ensued. In reality, only a handful of youths were actually fighting (most on the scene were bystanders) and only 12 people were charged with disorderly behaviour.


Most offences by young people are not very serious and are less likely to involve violence than those committed by adults. Most young people are apprehended for offences against property – 59% in 2014. Violent offences made up 17% of apprehensions.

What happens to young offenders?

The minor nature of most youth offences is reflected in the way they are handled. In 2014, 43% of offenders were dealt with through alternative action by Police Youth Aid (for example, written apologies, community work, reparation and counselling) and 21% were given a formal caution or warning. Others were referred for a family group conference where a young person meets with family members, victims and other people like social workers and youth advocates to talk about learning from their mistakes and strategies for acting differently in the future. Only 31% were prosecuted in court.

Why do youth offend?

Negative early life experiences contribute to the reasons for involvement in serious offending at a young age. These include many changes of caregivers, being severely punished or abused, and early involvement in drugs and alcohol. These factors also contribute to learning difficulties at school, which is another factor related to youth offending.

Alcohol factor

In 2009 Christchurch Youth Court judge Jane McMeeken told the Law Commission, ‘I often comment when I am sitting in Youth Court that if I only had to deal with young offenders who offended whilst sober, I would have very, very little work to do. That is a chilling statement to make when most of the young people I see are 14 or 15 years of age.’1

Reoffending is more likely among boys, those who fail to obtain school qualifications, and those involved with the police or child welfare early in life. Young people who do not have good support and effective plans for their future put in place when they have a family group conference or go to court are more likely to re-offend.

Young Māori offenders

Young Māori are over-represented among offenders. Commentators explain this by the fact that young Māori offenders often come from relatively disadvantaged families – a key indicator for early offending. Those under 20 are also a higher proportion of the Māori population. Māori youth are more likely than young Pākehā offenders to come to the attention of police when they offend. Some commentators have concluded that police and the community are more likely to suspect them of being ‘up to no good’. Once in the system, they are more likely to be apprehended again. For this reason a range of new strategies were used in the 21st century to address Māori youth offending.

  1. Alcohol in our lives: an issues paper on the reform of New Zealand’s liquor laws. Wellington: Law Commission, 2009, p. 50. Back
How to cite this page:

Gabrielle Maxwell, 'Youth offenders - Youth offenders: who, what and why', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 April 2024)

Story by Gabrielle Maxwell, published 5 May 2011, updated 1 Aug 2017