Early prevention the key to reducing youth crime - chief science advisor's report

A woman is handcuffed
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A new report argues the Government ought to take an early intervention approach to youth crime, as "harsh punishments have little deterrent effect on young people".

The report from the Office of the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor says the evidence proves it's more effective to improve community, social and family environments to keep children away from entering the prison pipeline.

Justice sector science advisor Dr Ian Lambie, who produced the report, says a preventative approach is best.

"The most effective and cost-effective way to reduce prison costs is to prevent kids getting into crime at the earliest opportunity," he explained.

The report says boot camps, which were a National Party election policy, do not work - and 'scared straight' programmes have even been shown to increase crime.

It calls on the Government to adopt a 'developmental crime prevention' model to change the trajectory of the "prison pipeline".

"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," the report says.

It identifies young Māori as "significantly and persistently over-represented" in the criminal justice system - as both victims and offenders. Violent offending rates for Pacific young people are also "disproportionately high".

The report calls for strong partnerships between the Government and Māori and Pacific communities, using culturally specific models and worldviews.

It says most young offenders have been victims themselves, experiencing high levels of abuse, neglect and violence - often from infancy. Eighty percent of child and youth offenders grew up with family violence at home.

Most of those in youth justice facilities have experienced at least two traumatic events, such as being sexually abused or in danger of it, being badly injured or being in danger of being badly injured or killed, witnessing a severe injury or a killing, or another event described as "terrifying".

The report argues that youth need support and trauma recovery services before offending is likely to begin.

Between 50 and 75 percent of young offenders meet the diagnostic criteria for a mental illness or substance addiction, while 79 percent are heavy drinkers, and 65.5 percent had used methamphetamine in the past year.

The report says the risk factors of youth crime include poverty, violence, childhood trauma, abuse and neglect, school failure, antisocial peers, parents in prison, undiagnosed mental and substance-use disorders, and lack of attachment to homes, communities and people.

The protective factors, reducing the risk, include a safe place to live, trauma-informed care, support with mental health, literacy, learning support, and a network of people in the home and community for a sense of belonging.

The report acknowledges the crime prevention approach is a "highly political" issue, but calls for "strong and courageous leadership".

"Painful examples of criminal victimisation feature in media coverage and public discourse, and have driven much of the public discourse. Prevention rarely features," it says.

During the election campaign, National Party spokesperson for defence Mark Mitchell called for a 12 month youth leadership camp to be established at Waiouru army base for the most serious violent youth offenders, about 150 to 200 of them.

Mr Mitchell said he doesn't like the term boot camp, and he stands by the policy.

"They were going to be isolated, they were going to be taken away from the community and they were going to have intense training from the defence forces and social welfare to try and get them turned around and get them moving in the right direction. I believe in those programmes," he said on Tuesday.

The full report It’s never too early, never too late: A discussion paper on preventing youth offending in New Zealand can be viewed here.