The New Zealand system of youth justice has been recognised around the world as an effective and humane way of responding to offending by children and young people, and the families, victims and communities affected by their offending. Conferences with families are used in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, North America and around the Pacific. It has been a model for legislative change in many countries including several Australian states, Canada, Northern Ireland, South Africa, and Norway. However, there are still some young people who continue to reoffend and new programmes developed to support changes in their behaviour.
Room for improvement
In 2009 principal Youth Court judge Andrew Becroft said in relation to the youth justice system, ‘A diversionary approach is the key focus and one of its biggest successes,’ but ‘[w]e can do better for adolescents with alcohol and drug abuse issues, or with mental health problems … We can also do better at keeping all young people engaged in education.’1
Success of the youth justice system
Research shows that police actions and family group conferences are almost universally successful in making young people accountable for their offending. Almost all offenders (95% according to one study) make some amends for the harm that they have done.
From 1989 the numbers of young people going to court or receiving custodial sentences markedly declined. However, studies conducted in the early 21st century show that many of these young people still fail to get the help they need to continue their education and to deal with mental health, drug and alcohol problems. There were not enough programmes available to support the children, young people and families that needed them.
Fresh Start programmes for young offenders annnounced in 2009, and implemented by the Ministry for Social Development included parenting programmes, mentoring and drug and alcohol programmes as well as educational, vocational and social problem-solving programmes for young offenders. Young offenders could also access a supported bail programme and avoid residential programmes by opting for supervision on a range of activity programmes. Government agencies were expected to work closely with community providers offering specialised programmes suitable to young people in their communities. The need for education, employment, health and youth services to collaborate in supporting changes in the lives of young offenders was recognised. Interventions aimed at those involved in serious crimes and reoffending included controversial military-style activity camps or “boot camps”.
Boot camps revisited
In 2009 the government introduced military-style activity camps (MACs) run by the New Zealand Defence Force for 40 of the most serious, recidivist youth offenders. Prime Minister John Key said, ‘Yes, they'll involve some marching exercises. Yes, they'll involve military facilities, but they'll also include long-term mentoring, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, education and an assisted move back into the community.’2 The New Zealand Families Commission (later called Superu) said that military camps and other measures such as curfews with electronic monitoring could not reduce offending by themselves, and that the most successful programmes involved offenders’ families or whānau.
Addressing the causes of offending
Youth offending experts have focused on the causes of offending as well as programmes for young offenders. Research emphasises the importance of a loving, supportive family environment and good education in producing law-abiding children and young people. New programmes directed at preventing youth offending include Break-Away school holiday programmes and Youth Development programmes offered by a range of providers under contract to the Ministry for Social Development. These programmes are targetted at children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and aim at increasing their confidence and making them aware of educational and vocational opportunities.
Programmes directed at reducing youth offending have included early intervention for children with behaviour problems and support for disadvantaged families, more effective educational plans for young people failing at school, and higher-quality programmes to deal with mental health, drug and alcohol problems. Life-skills programmes were also important.
People working with young Māori offenders have argued that programmes built around Māori tikanga (protocol), which keep youth in their communities, are most effective in reducing youth offending. The Ministry of Social Development and Youth Justice have recognised that advice from Iwi and Māori service providers is necessary in the development of programmes for Māori youth.
Some commentators argued that tougher responses and harsher penalties for youth offenders were required. Critics said that these measures would not result in reduced offending rate or give young people the skills they need to live productive lives.