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Youth Justice For All Youth

Youth Justice For All Youth

Last week Justice Minister Amy Adams announced that she has asked officials for advice on whether 17-year-olds should be included in our youth justice system. If the government makes this move, it will be a small but important step towards a more rational approach to criminal justice in New Zealand.

Expanding the youth justice system should be a no-brainer. The evidence shows that our youth justice system leads to better outcomes for victims, offenders, their families and the wider community. It costs the taxpayer less than the adult system and ensures safer communities for everyone.

That's why a broad range of experts and community groups have previously called for this change - from academics and NGOs in New Zealand to officials at the United Nations. The move would bring New Zealand into line with most of the world's other major democracies including Australia, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom and ensure we meet our human rights obligations under Article 1 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Experts support extending our youth justice system because it is specifically designed to deal with young offenders. It involves their families in decisions and tailors sentences according to the needs of victims and their wider communities. The strong emphasis on rehabilitation prevents many young offenders from 'graduating' to the adult system.

The real question is not whether the government should include 17-year-olds in the youth system, but why it has taken so long to do so.

The answer is that for too long politics had trumped evidence in the debate over New Zealand's criminal justice settings. New Zealand's "tough on crime" approach to criminal justice was pioneered by Helen Clark's Labour Party in 2002 (mirroring Tony Blair's approach in the UK) and led by then Justice Minister Phil Goff. The approach continued in the early years of the current National government under Justice Minister Judith Collins - her failed experiment using army boot camps to rehabilitate young offenders is a case in point.

But while "tough on crime" rhetoric makes good headlines for opportunistic politicians, the evidence shows these sorts of policies have been incredibly damaging for vulnerable New Zealand youth, and by trapping people in the criminal justice system do more to perpetuate crime than to keep communities safe. These policy failures and the pressure they place on budgets is leading governments around the world to embrace an approach that is "smart" rather than "tough" on crime.

New Zealand could be part of this shift. We now have a more open-minded set of Ministers in charge of criminal justice than has been the case for many years, and there is an opportunity to shift the country towards an evidence based approach to justice that would reduce crime and reoffending, better support victims of crime and save money.

To support this change JustSpeak is building a deep and ever increasing network of young people and community organisations that demand a more rational approach to criminal justice. It is our hope that we can shift the politics of criminal justice in New Zealand away from punitive penal populism driven by sensationalist reporting of crime, to a focus on evidence-based decision making and what works to keep us all safe.

Including 17-year-olds in the justice system would be a small step this direction. If it marks a turning point in the direction of criminal justice policies more generally, it could be a game-changer for the country.


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