Opinion: Let's try valuing our young people instead of hiding them away in boot camps

"We need to prove to our young people that we value them enough to hold them accountable, and that we value them enough to want them in our communities."
"We need to prove to our young people that we value them enough to hold them accountable, and that we value them enough to want them in our communities." Photo credit: Getty

OPINION: National has announced plans to create a new category of 'serious youth offender', including a compulsory military programme where youth can be sent for a year, and pecuniary fines on parents for their children's behaviour.

When law and order predictably rears its head in the run up to just about every election, parties often try to outdo each other to appeal to the mythical creature that is public opinion. Perspective can be hard to come by.

So let's get some perspective for a minute: Over the last three years youth crime has been at the lowest point it's ever been in 25 years of available statistics. That's right, the lowest point.

Being honest about the real issues of young people offending

This Government have spent a lot of time talking about vulnerable children and social investment approaches to reduce the 'poor outcomes' that vulnerable children can experience.

These 14-17 year old young people targeted by the serious youth offender policy are also mostly these same vulnerable children.

If we are honest about who these children are, we find that most have already been failed by society. Many are already in state care, are experiencing hardship and insecure housing, have experienced abuse themselves or may have undiagnosed or poorly supported neurodisabilities. Māori young people also find themselves in the youth justice system more frequently as many navigate institutional racism alongside many of the other issues mentioned.

Acknowledging these factors does not negate the harm that the young people have caused. In fact, we need to really understand and engage with these factors that lead young people to offend, so that we can start to make repairs and provide the best options to reduce future harm for everyone.

Applying the best knowledge we have to make things better

Military-style interventions for young people have been tried, tested and shown to fail. In fact they were shown to create more harm and increase reoffending in a UK government evaluation.

Our country already leads the world in areas like restorative justice and the way we use diversion in our youth justice system. We can and should be expanding these systems that are proven to work, but it's fair to say that National's new policy is a departure from these promising aspects of our justice system.

There are no simple solutions to reducing the harm caused by young people. If we are serious about reducing harm for everyone then we must address systemic issues like poverty, housing, and institutional racism.

Let's not further entrench inequities

There is a real danger that this policy and others like it will only further entrench the inequities that we can already see in our justice system.

Under this policy, a prerequisite to being labelled one of National's 'serious young offenders' is that you have been in a youth justice residence. In the last fiscal year over 70 percent of those admitted to youth justice residences were Māori. So this policy will directly target Māori youth - but without consideration for what Māori leaders are already telling us would be most effective for Māori youth.

To be classed as a 'serious young offender' you also have to get a high score on the police predictive reoffending tool called YORST. Lots of this score is made up of factors outside of the individual young person's control, like whether their parents or siblings have been to prison, and whether there is a history of family violence or CYF involvement in the family.

This means that young people are effectively being graded on their potential 'badness', based on factors outside of their own control. It effectively punishes young people for being born into unstable circumstances.

Similarly, on-the-spot fines for parents will target families already likely to be low-income and ignore the factors that lead to these children not being at home in the first place.

Build communities, not pipelines to prison

Ultimately it's about what are we trying to achieve for our young people. If it's further marginalisation of them and their whānau then this is likely to succeed.

But I believe we all want to dream bigger than that. If we truly want to reduce harm for everyone, we are going to have to get some perspective and be honest about what the real issues and levers for change are. And crucially we need to say no to these 'out of sight, out of mind' policies, like boot camps.

We need to lead by example and be invested in our communities, so that young people will be invested in our communities. We need to prove to our young people that we value them enough to hold them accountable, and that we value them enough to want them in our communities.

Dr Katie Bruce is the director of JustSpeak, a community group of young people that focuses on justice issues.