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What The Report On Youth Justice Should Say

Thursday 25 April

Justice Minister Phil Goff has kept Judge Carruther's report on the youth justice system under wraps for months. On the eve of its likely release, ACT Justice Spokesman Stephen Franks commented on what should be in the report.

"Tomorrow's report will be covered by a range of proposals designed to overshadow the bad news. It is likely to:
1. Promise to toughen up on "headline" or serious repeat offending.
2. Promise to toughen up on school truancy.
3. Fulminate about irresponsible parenting, and promise more `interventions'
4. Promise much better co-ordination among government agencies.
5. Talk about more use of community based formal alternatives to current arrangements.
6. Talk about cultural sensitivity without anything that will specifically respect any culture's traditional child rearing and disciplinary values and crime responses.

"The report has been produced by people with a stake in defending the system. Many reputations depend on not trashing claimed treasures such as Family Group Conferencing. The report will criticise, but urge that everything could work if we just had more resources and more resolve to do things as their well-meaning originators intended.

"What the report should admit is:
1. Measuring success must involve comparison of genuine
alternatives.
Any true success of the current system depends on a constant
supply of dedicated and well meaning people, unreliable
"resources" from government, and committee style decision making.
Despite the best of intentions, it is unrealistic. Justice
systems
must work in spite of human frailty, not only when frailty is
`resourced' away.
2. Statistical detail is unreliable because of changes in reporting
and the arbitrariness of the decision of whether a child goes
through a properly recorded court process.
3. Family group conferencing is extremely expensive in terms of the
time. There is no reliable measurement of outcomes or enforcement
of agreements reached.
4. The best evidence of offending probably comes from police figures
for children apprehended, about 7 times the numbers actually
dealt
with in court.
5. Maori offending is 52% of cases prosecuted and Maori and Pacific
Island offending together is over 60%.
6. Since 1991 family group conferencing and diversion have reduced
the numbers and proportion of young offenders formally charged
and
dealt with after conviction ("proven" in the jargon of the youth
justice system).
7. In that time violent youth offending has doubled. Aggravated
robberies have tripled as has the number of grievous or serious
assaults.
8. The numbers sentenced to be locked up have more than halved while
youth violent offences have doubled. As with dangerous mental
patients, the run down in custodial facilities means there are no
longer enough places.

"If the report truly tackles the hard issues instead of just making
it
look as if they are being tackled in time for the elections, it would
consider possibilities and ask questions such as:
1. Legitimising Police diversion/detention toughlove programmes for
first offenders, confirming Police authority to offer children
and
families the choice of participation, on condition that if the
Police conditions are not met, ordinary enforcement procedures
through the courts will result.
2. Preserving Family Group Conferencing for first and second
offenders as a sensible form of restorative justice, but ending
it
as a routine for habitual offenders.
3. Why did the Minister reject (ACT) attempts to ensure the
Sentencing and Parole Bill allows Judges to make orders rendering
restorative justice agreements enforceable, and authorising
probation officers to supervise performance?
4. Starting criminal responsibility at age 10 for homicide (like the
UK) and serious assaults, and at age 12 for all other offences.
5. Giving adult sentences for adult crimes but ensuring young people
serve their sentences in facilities better suited to children,
keeping them separate from career criminals.
6. Abolishing the Youth Court and ending Family Court involvement in
crime, so that the District and High Courts would deal with all
crime. So far as is practical hearings would keep young people
separate from adults, for a less menacing and more child oriented
atmosphere in the Court.
7. Giving to a single agency (preferably the Police) the
responsibility and the full resources, rights and powers for
ensuring orders in respect of child offenders are carried out.
They could then contract with other agencies on a basis that they
can enforce performance.
8. Ending name and record suppression for guilty young people and
their families, and opening up closed Youth and Family courts to
normal scrutiny. Young people should not be getting the message
that their offending does not really matter.
9. Ending the charade of family group conferencing when the
offenders
have no responsible family members or family members are
themselves criminals probably responsible for the predicament of
the child.
10. Holding young people responsible for law breaking such as
prostitution, buying cigarettes or alcohol or being found drunk,
as well as those who enter these transactions with them.
11. Ensuring that the full range of sentencing options are restored
to
the judges and taken away from the theorists in Corrections.
Judges should be able to design punishments to fit the crime. For
example, judges should be able to make enforceable long term
non-association orders to keep young people away from gangs.
12. Holding parents responsible for readily preventable child
offending, and upholding the authority of parents who will be
responsible to confine or otherwise discipline children (without
condoning brutality).
13. Ending vague talk about "counselling" and "interventions", and
instead stating specifically what real powers mentors or other
custodians will have in respect of children, and what rights
children have from their mentors or guardians.
14. Hard questioning of proposals for more Tikanga Maori. In
particular why will restored traditional culture will be more
successful in improving families immersed in the shared current
reality of TV, welfare and drugs, than it has been in the past?
15. Ending the racist assumption that it is culturally offensive to
expect the same standards of behaviour and care from all parents
irrespective of race.
16. Why is the US getting a sustained and major reduction in youth
offending

(http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A16947-2002Apr8.htm
l

(http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A16947-2002Apr8.htm
l) )?

"Some of these matters will be dealt with in the report but mostly in euphemisms.

"The government has had nearly three years for this report. They have ensured that the public debate over the weekend will be superficial and ill-informed, by suppressing the report until they have all their diverting new proposals in place. That way the problems will not get expert scrutiny from outside officially anointed circles until after the initial media attention is exhausted. The government hopes that by then the public will have formed their impressions that things are not good, but the government is really doing something about it.

"In reality there will be no departure from the failed experiment of the past 30 years. It deals with crime by trying to treat the criminals. There is discouragingly little evidence that this reduces repeat offending, and even less that it reduces overall offending. Treatment should be tried, but it should be secondary to a focus first on deterring those who are not criminals, but may be thinking about it, and on those who are victims and prospective victims.

"It is shameful that the government's proposals will be implemented too late for voters to know whether they work or even whether there is any real determination to make them work," Mr Franks said.

ENDS

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