It was late in a 40-minute press conference on Wednesday when the Prime Minister scrapped the political speak and went with his gut on the failure he’ll have overseen if the country’s serious young offenders aren’t saved from a life behind bars.
“It’s a failing we’ve got kids in this situation in the first place, we’ve got to do more to stop that happening,” Chris Hipkins said.
“I’m not going to write these kids off – if they’re 12 years old they’ve got a whole life ahead of them and I’m not willing to just give up and say they’re going to spend their life in and out of prison.
“We can do better than that.”
* Finding and training the right youth justice staff evades MPs
* Hipkins changes tune on youth crime as pressure mounts
* Schools and police to team up to stop ‘tragedy’ of 12yo ram raiders
For two days he’s been on the back foot rolling out law and order policy that has seemed like a knee-jerk reaction to National and Act’s domination in this area, and announcements that don’t naturally fit in Labour’s toolkit.
On Monday he set out on his own a raft of changes that would make posting online or live-streaming a ram raid an aggravating factor in sentencing and would punish adults who coerced young people to commit crimes on their behalf.
The most jarring change wasn’t the policy but the rhetoric being used by Hipkins when he said on several occasions that he’d had a “gutsful” along with New Zealanders when it came to repeat ram raids and retail crime from young offenders.
It’s law and order language Hipkins has previously steered clear of, and just how much impact it would have on ram raids seemed small to almost nothing.
The following day he brought Minister for Children Kelvin Davis along to announce two new high-needs youth justice facilities would be built to deal with the worst young offenders.
In addition, staff at youth justice residences would be given powers to search anyone coming onto the premises to stop the flow of contraband, and there would be more funding for family group conferences to prevent reoffending.
The announcement felt, looked, and sounded like one Davis had been tasked with drawing up on the back of a napkin on his flight from Northland to Wellington the day before.
The glaring lack of detail as to what age children might end up in the facilities, what the model of care would be, whether there would be mental health and trauma support onsite and how much it all might cost or when it would be built bordered on embarrassing for a government announcement.
A Labour Party campaign announcement that is an intention, but not a done deal, can be forgiven for lacking some obvious meat on the bone, but not when it’s been devised with the help of the public service from the ninth floor of the Beehive.
And this was after Hipkins had already been forced to correct the record on his morning media round earlier that day.
During Monday’s announcement he claimed adults who coerced young people to commit a crime would be a new offence, when it would only be an aggravating factor at sentencing.
After Davis and Hipkins’ dismal sell of new youth lock-ups on Tuesday, staff could be seen shaking their heads in disbelief at what had transpired.
“Almost 100 percent of those committing more than five ram raids have had family violence callouts to their homes.” – Justice Minister Kiri Allan
The original plan was for Allan and Hipkins to roll out changes on Tuesday that would allow police and prosecutors to treat the worst of the country’s 12 and 13 year olds by putting them through the Youth Court.
The youth justice package includes a new offence specifically targeting ram raids that would elevate the youngest offenders from the Family Court into the Youth Court, and allow measures like monitoring, curfews, and parental conditions to be used.
It will also expand the ‘Circuit Breaker’ fast-track intervention programme and give police, prosecutors, and the courts discretion to expedite the worst offenders through the intervention system faster and into tougher courses of action.
After needing more time to nail down the detail, the announcement was moved to Wednesday and Davis’ Oranga Tamariki-focused package took the Tuesday slot.
That may have put more pressure on, but given the depth of questions left unanswered it’s almost impossible even an extra 24 hours would have saved that particular mess.
Hipkins became police minister last year around the same time Allan took on the justice portfolio and it was clear in their answers to some complicated questions that the pair had been working on the youth justice package for more than a few days or weeks.
Allan, who has faced significant pressure in recent weeks and took time away from Parliament, was well versed in the policy and offered insights backed up with evidence and statistics on what was causing some of the worst behaviours amongst young people.
“Police provided us info that around 80 percent of all children committing ram raids have had at least one family violence callout to their homes,” Allan told Newsroom.
“Almost 100 percent of those committing more than five ram raids have had family violence callouts to their homes.”
She said everyone had their own recollections of “different offences that were the flavour of the month and year” during their own childhood.
“Right now, police say yes it’s ram raiding, but not that long ago it was going through the roof of shops – lifting them up and burgling.”
Three months out from the election it’s not surprising or unjustified for National and Act to say the Government has been too slow to wake up to the ram raid and youth crime issue.
Hipkins has clearly given the softly-softly intervention approach a longer runway than many traumatised business owners think is reasonable, and is only now providing police with the ability to be tougher with repeat offenders.
Having now accepted the approach to date hasn’t dealt with a cohort of prolific offenders convinced they can simply get away with it, Hipkins seems set on helping the ones willing to be helped, and doing a mixture of secure care and rehabilitation with the rest.
Accepting a problem exists is definitely a start.