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Brash: Saving a generation of young people

Don Brash MP - National Party Leader

21 March 2005

Saving a generation of young people

An address to ASSET, the Association of Social Service in Tauranga

Most teachers of young children know which of their class are likely to become criminal justice statistics; something that Celia Lashlie said to the great irritation of those who employed her.

But if we’re so good at picking the children at risk, why do we fail so often in preventing the risk becoming a reality?

I am not prepared to accept that any child is born bad.

If we can get at-risk children off what’s been called the conveyor belt to crime early, then we can help make better lives and a safer country.

Today I would like to talk about some of National’s plans to help this generation of young New Zealanders.

The kids at risk are most likely to be neglected by their parents; or to have only one, very young, parent; or to have parents who are separating or living apart - they are likely to be kids who don’t have a relationship with their fathers, have frequent changes of address, see drug-taking, domestic violence and criminal activity in their homes, get punished harshly, are victims of bullying or belong to gangs of bullies, and are frequently truants from school.

Good kids can and do come from backgrounds like these - and bad kids can come from what look like the best of homes, where parents have done all the right things, providing love, guidance, and time.

But these are the factors that are most frequently present in the background of young repeat offenders, and the challenge is to help families save those young people who would otherwise drift into a life of crime.

Now, the Labour Government says “don’t worry, be happy” - youth crime is not a problem.

But we should be concerned about youth offending in New Zealand.

Here are the facts: the overwhelming number of prison inmates began their criminal careers as young offenders. Young people aged between 10 and 16 are responsible for a quarter of all crime in New Zealand. And a small group of fewer than 5% of young people commit a significant amount of that crime.

We can’t take too much comfort from the statistics that tell us 75% of our young people never offend - and that of the 25% who do, the vast majority only offend once or twice.

Over the last five years, the numbers of young people being apprehended for committing acts of violence, dishonesty, drug abuse, and property damage have all steadily increased.

Youth crime is one of the most urgent problems facing our country today.

Crime does not occur in isolation. And as we know, good parenting is fundamental to reducing youth crime.

And that is where our new approach to the problem starts.

National will expand the effort to support good parenting in at-risk families.

We laid a sound foundation of community-based, positive parenting programmes when we were last in office.

Parents As First Teachers, HIPPY (the Home Instructional Programme for Pre-schoolers and Youngsters), Family Start, and Strengthening Families were all initiated by National - and we intend to build on these foundations.

National’s innovation of putting social workers into schools has also made a real difference and the current Government has continued this.

Policymakers spend a lot of time looking at what makes families dysfunctional.

We need to look also at what makes families successful. Things like having a job; having loving and supportive parents; parental monitoring of kids’ friends and activities, school attendance and social skills. That’s why getting people off welfare and into work, and supporting the family unit, are so important.

Good parenting and home life are our best first line of defence against youth crime.

School is crucial also.

School attendance - even more than school achievement - has been identified as a particularly important factor in efforts to reduce the risk of offending by young people.

National will introduce new measures to reduce truancy.

In Whakatane, police began making regular visits to the homes of truants. The parents responded by ensuring their children went to school more regularly to reduce the attention they were receiving from the police. Truancy reduced dramatically. So did petty crime.

The truants’ return to school diverted them from other activities that were likely to be even more demanding on police resources. It was a win-win outcome for all parties.

The Whakatane initiative brought young people back into a school environment where good discipline and order are expected, where arts and sports are encouraged, and where there are opportunities to build important life skills.

Those skills include communication, self-control, and stress and anger management that may not be present in the home or picked up in the street.

That said, we have got to make schools themselves a safer place for our children. Bullying is a common factor in the lives of young offenders, and bullying has become an unsavoury fact of life in far too many school playgrounds.

We can’t afford to write school bullying off as part of the “toughening up” process that kids need to go through to cope with adult life.

Three years ago, a study covering more than 820 students and 439 teachers in 107 New Zealand schools reported that nearly half the students said they had been bullied - and didn’t expect any ready help if they told their teachers about it.

A third of the students admitted that they had engaged in bullying others.

The bullying ranged from name-calling, through rumour-spreading, to outright racist abuse, and physical assault.

One in ten of the students said they were being bullied once a week, or more often.

The really worrying fact is that more staff than students thought that verbal and physical bullying occurred in their schools.

On top of that, 90% of the teachers said they were ready to help the victims, their school had a policy on bullying, and the policy meant something would be done about it when kids were bullied.

Yet nearly half the kids didn’t expect to get help if they went to their teachers. Many were not sure if their school had a policy on bullying, or if the school would give them support.

That’s a big gap between the staff view and the student view of bullying - a major credibility gap.

National will address the problem of bullying in schools.

Bullying is a key factor fuelling the growth of serious offending by young New Zealanders - and we must be more active in discouraging it.

We will support schools in their efforts to eliminate bullying and in meeting their obligation to “provide a safe physical and emotional environment” in our schools.

National will be taking a number of other initiatives to reduce the risk that young New Zealanders will become young offenders.

Many young people offend at some stage while they are growing up, but most do not offend seriously.

In dealing with the early stages of a life which may, but need not necessarily, progress from anti-social behaviour to serious crime, we need to show compassion.

I believe any parent would want to see the justice system giving a second chance to a young person who has, for whatever reason, had a minor brush with the law.

After all, most of those attending a first or second Family Group Conference will not offend again. People make mistakes. Most learn from them.

But for those who keep re-offending, endlessly recycling through these conferences is pointless.

Frankly, we need to get these children’s problems dealt with much sooner than is the case now.

National will limit the use of Family Group Conferences and have children referred to the Youth Court more promptly.

Family Group Conferences were introduced to deliver restorative justice to young people, their families, and victims.

They were a device to avoid exposing the young offender to the “harmful” criminal justice system.

They’ve been described as the lynch pin of the current Government’s youth justice system.

We say they have proved to be one of its major weaknesses.

Recent research shows that two-thirds of the 15-16 year olds dealt with by Family Group Conferences re-offend, and one in five end up behind bars within three years.

Repeat offenders have histories of Family Group Conference after Family Group Conference. Some have been 11, 12, or even 14 times. The repeated use of conferences is not delivering resolution, correction, or punishment.

There is a hard core - 5% of our youngsters - who go on offending time and time again.

Sadly, they will grow up to be career criminals, wreaking havoc in our community for the rest of their active lives whenever they are at liberty to do so.

We need to act sooner - and we need real action that produces solutions, not a repetition of the problem.

We will change the system so that cases against young people who are aged 12 and over - and who have a record of two previous Family Group Conferences - are referred immediately to a Youth Court judge.

Two yellow cards and then you face the judiciary.

We must ensure that a young person embarking on what may become a life of crime knows exactly where the boundaries are, and knows that we will not tolerate repeat offending. And we must focus more serious attention on the small group committing almost all the crimes.

Repeat young offenders, aged 14 to 17, who are reappearing before the Youth Court will no longer be involved in a Family Group Conference prior to a hearing.

We want to have these young people before a judge sooner rather than too late - and we will give the judges new powers to help shift young offenders off the conveyor belt to more serious crimes.

National will grant the Youth Court power to issue new parenting orders.

It’s an initiative that’s already been taken in the United Kingdom, where it’s producing highly promising results.

Under parenting orders, parents whose children have been involved in offending, anti-social behaviour or truancy are required to attend regular counselling and guidance sessions on parenting skills in courses lasting up to three months.

The Court may add other requirements lasting for up to 12 months, including curfews, controls over association with others, and school attendance.

Non-compliance with the orders leads to a review meeting, a written warning, and then to a $2,500 fine or community work.

3,000 parents participated in a trial of these orders in the UK. Two-thirds participated on a voluntary basis.

The parenting order is designed to offer support to parents whose children have got involved with crime. It is not a punishment but a positive development consistent with parental responsibility, helping parents build their skills to better deal with challenging teenage behaviour.

In fact, in the trial it was found that 90% of participants would recommend the programme to other parents.

Re-offending by children of parents subject to parenting orders in Britain has dropped 50%.

We also want to give judges more opportunity to use another corrective option that’s also achieved well-documented success overseas.

National will expand the provision of “Multi-Systemic Therapy” (MST) for young offenders in New Zealand. It’s a dreadful name but the programme works!

MST targets all the systems around a young person at-risk - parents, friends, school, work - in a programme that lasts six months and is rigorously monitored, with progress measured.

Results achieved through monitored MST programmes show a 50% reduction in re-offending by young people who’ve undergone the programme.

The therapy costs less than a third of the $35,000 bill taxpayers currently face for providing a three month placement at a Child, Youth and Family justice facility.

At the moment, around 200 families have completed or are participating in six MST programmes around New Zealand. National will significantly expand the availability of this option.

Parenting orders and Multi-Systemic Therapy are both producing good results.

New Zealand has been putting too much reliance on Family Group Conferences in dealing with repeat young offenders.

Three years ago, a Ministerial Taskforce on Youth Offending found that “Family Group Conferences need to be targeted at those with whom they have most impact. The process does not work so well with the hardest-end offenders”.

Furthermore, the Youth Court itself is too constrained in its ability to deal with young offenders involved in serious crimes.

Let me illustrate the point with two examples.

The first concerns a 13 year old boy who raped a young girl. He could only be dealt with by the criminal courts when he turned 14, having raped again.

The second concerns 12 year old Bailey Junior Kurariki, who was dealt with by the criminal court for his part in the killing of Michael Choy at Papakura.

This boy only faced criminal sanction because our current law permits the courts to deal with murder and manslaughter charges laid against young people aged 10 and above.

If Mr Choy had not been killed - but instead left maimed, or in a permanently vegetative state - Kurariki would not have faced any criminal sanction at all.

That simply can’t be acceptable.

I believe that all our community - including our young people - deserve better protection from under 14 year olds who have demonstrated their ability to perpetrate such vicious crimes as rape and serious assault.

When our crime statistics show that the most significant increase in apprehensions for young people is in the area of crimes of violence - up 20% in just four years - we have to act, and we will.

The current provisions relating to young people charged with murder and manslaughter will remain unchanged.

But National will lower the age of general criminal responsibility for young people from 14 to 12.

In taking this step, we are taking a moderate, mainstream, position. At one extreme, in North Carolina, the age of criminal responsibility is 6. In England, Wales, and Australia, it is 10 (though this is heavily qualified in Australia’s case). In Canada and Ireland, it is 12.

Lowering the age of criminal responsibility in New Zealand won’t see 12 year olds locked up in adult prisons. The Corrections Department operates four youth units where young offenders can be detained.

The real change we make by lowering the general age of criminal responsibility is that young people charged with serious offences will be treated seriously in the formal court system.

Serious crime requires serious treatment.

National will also investigate longer sentencing options for the Youth Court.

The longest sentence that can be imposed in the Youth Court today is three months in a youth justice facility.

Practitioners and the police report that this is not enough time to address the causes of offending or to achieve positive change in behaviour.

An acknowledged international expert, Professor Lawrence Sherman of the University of Maryland, has spent years studying what works and what doesn’t in the justice system.

Professor Sherman certainly holds the view that larger amounts of meaningful contact over a longer duration - both during and after a period of residential supervision - are more likely to produce the results that the public hopes to see from the treatment of repeat young offenders.

National will investigate extending the current limit on residential supervision from three months to 12 months, coupled with the introduction of a new post-release rehabilitation programme.

Finally, National will introduce a new behaviour correction contract.

This will provide another option to Youth Court judges.

Modelled on similar orders in Britain, the new behaviour correction contract will be designed to reinforce to young offenders the seriousness of their predicament and define a set of solutions to resolve their problem.

Contracts may require young offenders to stay away from particular places, or prevent them from doing particular things or associating with particular people.

They will detail incentives for appropriate behaviour and penalties for anti-social behaviour.

Non-compliance with a behaviour correction contract would be met with a set of stepped responses leading up to a period of residential supervision in a Child Youth and Family facility.

The contract offers the benefit of clear parameters of acceptable behaviour to young people who may never have had this kind of guidance before their entry to the youth justice system.

One of the conditions in the contract will require regular attendance at school.

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With our new Youth Justice policy, National is adopting a holistic approach to stop a cruel conveyor belt that is carrying too many of our children from a state of innocence to the dismal fate that awaits the career criminal.

We will provide:

- Supportive programmes to encourage positive parenting;

- New tools to enable schools to address truancy;

- Second chances for young first offenders;

- Clear parameters for future behaviour;

- Stiffer punishments for repeat offenders;

- And more effective post-release supervision and rehabilitation programmes.

Our new Youth Justice policy sits within a supportive framework of broader strategies for

- Lifting economic growth and reducing taxation;

- Improving health and education;

- Reducing welfare dependency;

- Ending racial separatism; and

- Improving the security and safety of all New Zealanders.

Within this framework, our young people - particularly those at risk - demand and deserve special consideration.

No one is born a criminal.

We know the social factors frequently associated with youth offending.

We know how to identify patterns of bad behaviour as they form.

We have the ability to intervene and correct these behaviours before it’s too late.

The only question is: do we have the will?

The National Party has.

We also have a detailed plan of action.

I want to thank the many people who’ve contributed - and who continue to contribute - to the development of our new Youth Justice policy.

Thanks to them, we are ready.

This year, with your help, we have the opportunity to go to work.

ENDS

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