Media Release: Loud and clear from the social sector – Raise the age of youth justice

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Today 26 organisations and 5 independent experts from across the youth, justice and disability sectors have joined together to call on the Government to raise the age of youth justice in Aotearoa.

The message from the sector is clear. When we treat children and young people as adults in our justice system we create more social harm. We throw away the potential of these young people and create more offending in our communities. Over 90% of under 20s who spend time in prison are re-convicted within 2 years. “It’s not working” says Katie Bruce, Director of JustSpeak, a network of young people speaking out for evidence-based reform.

There is nothing soft about reducing future crime, respecting victims and holding young people to account in a way that addresses the causes of their offending. Thousands of young people, victims and whānau would benefit every year, especially young Māori, who are grossly overrepresented in the criminal justice system. David Hanna, Director of Wesley Community Action says “the evidence is clear – we just need political leadership”.

Next month Cabinet will decide whether to include 17 year olds in the youth justice system. This was a key recommendation of the government appointed Expert Panel on the modernisation of Child, Youth and Family. The report stated that: “Children and young people would be considered children and young people first and foremost, rather than offenders and this would drive the nature of professional practice”.

The Government has accepted the Expert Panel’s recommendation to raise the age of care to 18, with additional support into the 20s, but is yet to agree to raise the age of youth justice.

“We can’t separate the two,” says Director of JustSpeak, Katie Bruce. “We are talking, far too often, about the same young people”. Up to 80% of young people appearing in Youth Court have had concerns raised about their abuse or neglect as children. “Young people need consistency in the way that we support them to have bright futures as adults, both in care and protection and youth justice. We need to raise the age of youth justice to at least 18, with additional provisions to bring older young people into the youth justice system where we can.”

Ministers may be concerned that the Youth Justice system is a soft option. “The public can be reassured,” says Dr Nessa Lynch, Senior Law Lecturer at Victoria University. “Top-end offending, such as homicide and other serious offences, will continue to be dealt with through the adult justice system while the minor and moderate offending, which makes up the majority of offending committed by 17 year olds, will receive a response that holds the young person accountable while addressing the problems that led them to the situation.”

“We now know that our brains continue to develop throughout adolescence and into early adulthood” says Sue Wright, Brainwave Executive Director. “This means our ability to plan and think through the consequences of our actions is still maturing until we are in our early 20s. In men this is nearer to 25 years old. As we gain understanding of adolescent brain development we now know that risk taking and impulsive behaviour are a normal part of this maturation process. This can, at times, lead to behaviours which put the adolescent at risk of making poor decisions. While this does not justify breaking the law, it is clear that young people need scaffolding and appropriate adult support through these years to learn to manage the consequences of their behaviour.”

Vanushi Walters, General Manager of YouthLaw says “It’s simple. The restorative approach used within the Youth Court works. We’ve seen it work”. Moira Lawler, Chief Executive of Lifewise, says, “We see the difference it makes in a young person’s life when they are given the opportunities they need to turn their lives around.” Lifewise run a Youth Transition Service in West Auckland where they work closely with young people struggling with homelessness to connect them to the vocational training and job opportunities they are looking for. “Raising the age of youth justice would give young people the chance and the time they need to become the responsible, hardworking Kiwis they are meant to be,” says Moira.

Our youth justice system models a pioneering response for those with neurodisabilities, as highlighted in the ‘Neurodisability in the Youth Justice System’ report out just last week. We are only just starting to understand the extent of young people with neurodisabilities, such as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, in our criminal justice system. “Raising the Youth Justice age is the best option to radically improve prospects for young people with neurodisabilities who are vulnerable in the justice system,” says Guy Pope-Mayell, Chair of Trustees of Dyslexia Foundation. Young people with neurodisabilities are obvious candidates to have access to the youth justice system in their late teens and even early twenties.

Kim Workman, justice advocate agrees. “There has been a significant shift on this issue worldwide, as the neurobiological and criminological evidence draws nations toward one inescapable conclusion – that they need to raise the age to at least 18 years. In 41 of the 50 US states, 18 is the cut-off point, and five of the remaining nine states have legislation in train to join the majority. New Zealand’s world- wide reputation as a leader in youth justice is at stake here.”

Supporting organisations:

Action for Children and Youth Aotearoa, Ara Taiohi, Brainwave Trust, Challenge 2000, Children’s Issues Centre, Community Law, Donald Beasley Institute, Dyslexia Foundation, FASD-CAN, Hui E, Human Rights Foundation, Human Rights Lawyers Association, JustSpeak, Lifewise, OMEP, Pillars, Prison Fellowship, Restorative Practices Aotearoa, Salvation Army, Talking Trouble, Te Taitimu Trust, Unicef, Victim Support, Wesley Community Action, YouthLaw, Youthline.

Supporting experts:

Professor Mark Henaghan, Dr Nessa Lynch, Dr Kim Workman, Associate Professor Nicola Taylor and Megan Gollop.