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Muriel Newman: The Conveyer Belt to Adult Crime


The Conveyer Belt to Adult Crime

Weekly Column by Dr Muriel Newman

Police statistics for apprehensions of child criminals make for sobering reading.

Some 12, 541 children aged 13 and under were apprehended by police for committing offences in the year to June 30. Of those, 1,522 were aged nine years and under with 39 percent classified as Caucasian, 52 percent Maori and 5 percent Pacific Islanders.

Altogether 44,000 offences resulting in police apprehensions were committed by children aged 16 years and under, compared with 156,000 for adults aged 17 years and above. That means that children are responsible for almost 22 percent of all police apprehensions.

Since children are not culpable for offences under Sections 21 and 22 of the Crimes Act and police often take other action rather than apprehension, the 44,000 offences committed by children are just the tip of the iceberg. We know that on average, youth criminals commit ten offences before a prison sentence is imposed.

These statistics make you wonder what sort of a society we live in when 1500 children are already on a pathway to crime at the age of nine. It raises very important concerns about the way some New Zealand parents are bringing up their children and in particular whether some of these children live in criminal families where their parents are using them to commit crimes that they know they cannot be charged for. In these cases, surely the parents should be held liable and responsible.

Many children who become criminal offenders are brought up in chaotic families with parents who as well as being poor role models, fail to provide stability, love and support, or set limits for acceptable behaviour. At four or five years old, while these children have engaged in no criminality so far, they have had their minds and emotions messed up by failure of parental support and are on the conveyer belt to crime. The teenage street criminals of today - dropouts and drug addicts - are in all too many cases, just child criminals who have grown up.

The challenge to law makers is to find ways to not only prevent children from entering the conveyor belt, but to help them off it. For it they don't and end up in the prison system statistics show that over ninety six per cent of 15-19 year olds released between 1995 and 1998 will be reconvicted within five years.

Surely that reconviction rate alone highlights the fact that New Zealand's method of dealing with youth justice - via family group conferences, the secret Family and Youth Courts - is deeply, deeply flawed.

Around 6,000 family group conferences are held every year. In many districts, there is nobody to ensure that the agreed outcomes of conferences are met. Police say that third, fourth and fifth conferences for one offender are largely useless, but they still have to go through them.

Since 1994 violent youth crime in the United States has been cut by more than a third.

At the same time our rate has doubled, with violent robbery by youth nearly tripling. What did the United States do? New York provides the most dramatic example. Their Zero Tolerance approach to crime meant they created a climate with no room for entry-level crime. As a result youths committing vandalism, tagging, shoplifting and minor theft didn't have the opportunity to graduate to serious violent crime.

Certainty is what makes Zero Tolerance work. Youths who commit crime have a great degree of certainty that they will be detected, convicted and sentenced. ACT's Zero Tolerance policy would end pointless Family Group Conferences with 'caregivers' who do not provide care, and would restore certainty that every reported crime has a formal recorded consequence. This means young criminals will no longer get a fifth chance, or a seventh, or an eleventh, before a meaningful punishment is imposed.

Adult sentences should be imposed for adult crimes, but served in youth institutions. Prison does three things. It provides protection, deterrence and punishment. It protects the community from further crime while the prisoner is out of circulation, deters others and ensures that victims know that justice has been done - this last point is known as 'retributive justice'. Labour eliminated retributive justice 13 years ago as a purpose of punishment - now the Parole Act 2002 has eliminated deterrence.

Cutting crime must be one of the most important objectives of any Government. Crime threatens the very existence of society - it drives vulnerable and honest citizens of the streets and out of public areas, where they have every right to be. When we battle crime, we need more than compassion. We must also be armed with common sense and a belief in individual choice, freedom and responsibility.

Therefore, we need to provide more help for parents with difficult kids. We need to provide more addiction treatment for children and teenagers. We must dump the failed family group conferences. We must eradicate the system which wipes youth crime records when a teenager passes 17. These are not all of the answers, but they are a start.

Of course, New Zealand could continue on our path and ignore the answers from overseas - we can refuse to have a debate based on reality rather than misplaced compassion, and we can continue to place political correctness above every virtue that matters.

We must realise though that if we continue to do nothing, we will fail our young children, and too many of them will remain on a conveyer belt to adult crime.

_____

You can view the archive of Columns at the ACT website http://www.act.org.nz/


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