Coming down hard on young people isn’t going to solve youth crime rates, writes Christine McCarthy. If we are going to make progress on outcomes for children to prevent lifetime offending, we have to look to the future. 

When photographs surfaced in the media of National Party candidate William Wood posing aged 14 as Adolf Hitler, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters identified such mistakes as “part of the growing up process”. ACT leader David Seymour likewise noted that “going after someone for something they did when they were 14, no matter how stupid, I don’t think helps New Zealand solve its problems”.

However, our law is not so generous. Despite the United Nations’ call for a minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR) of at least 14, our Crimes Act has a MACR of 10.

This is moderated by the Oranga Tamariki Act, which limits the prosecution of 10-year-olds to murder and manslaughter and that of 12-year-olds to “serious offending”, with 14 years being the age of prosecution for all other offending.

Consequently, New Zealand retains one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility internationally, prompting Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft to call for the MACR to be lifted to 14, stating that “[t]he current age of criminal responsibility should be consigned to history”.

This election, only two political parties have MACR-related policies: the Greens have endorsed the current age, while the New Conservatives want one of 12 years.

This is only one aspect of youth justice – a topic few parties have specific policies on. There are no policies confronting the fact roughly 80 percent of children in youth justice residences are on remand, nor querying whether we need to change the way children with disorders, such as Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, are treated in our justice system.

The current regime prosecuting children 12 years and older for serious offending was a National government initiative and the party’s proposed category of Youth Serious Offenders (YSOs) develops this thinking.

YSOs would be electronically monitored, get longer sentences of 12 months in youth justice facilities and have a further 18 months of community supervision. Currently, there is a maximum of six months’ custody and 12 months’ supervision.

The New Conservatives are likewise intending to “come down hard on first-time youth offenders”, introducing year-long detention at “boot farms” where young people who offend will learn life and farming skills. Boot camps have been a favourite of ‘tough on crime’ politicians in the past, although the New Conservatives are at pains to distance themselves from these, with an emphasis on ‘farms’ not ‘camps’.

The premise of early intervention is in the right ballpark, but a ‘tough on crime’ agenda for children and young people won’t work. As former Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor Professor Sir Peter Gluckman reported in 2018, these sorts of boot camp schemes increase rather than decrease offending.

Recently published research led by University of Auckland and University of Otago academics emphasises that most life-time serious offenders experienced significant trauma as children.

This is not new news. The Ministry of Social Development tracked the lives of more than 58,000 New Zealanders born in 1989 and found 83 percent of those in prison at 20 years old had had a state welfare record.

United States research by psychiatrist Dr Stuart Brown has identified a double-whammy where children subject to abusive environments are often deprived of the opportunities to learn skills to regulate emotions, adapt and be resilient because they are ‘play-deprived’. He researched murderers in Texas prisons: “Every single one of them lacked typical play experiences … and they missed the learning that came from it.” His work points to complex environmental issues rather than simplistic reasons for offending.

The Auckland and Otago academics also say more research is needed on the effectiveness of interventions at different ages. National’s proposed ‘child passport’ tracking children’s progress might support such research, but any pre-emptive targeting of children has ethical consequences and the potential for stigmatisation needs to be carefully thought through.

This election, the future has loomed large in slogans like ‘Back your Future’, ‘Change your Future’ and ‘Think Ahead’. If we are going to make significant improvement in outcomes for children to prevent lifetime offending, future-focused is what we need to be.

The shift in most party manifestos this election to extending mental health support for children and young people and addressing child poverty and child abuse is a much-needed change. That 83 percent of prisoners in the 1989 cohort had child welfare histories suggests prison hides gaps in our child welfare system.

As Gluckman concluded: “The effects of abuse, neglect and maltreatment on children’s development and behaviour can be successfully addressed at home, at school, in the community and in targeted mental health and other services, for a fraction of the cost of imprisonment.”

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