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John Tamihere: Succeeding with young offenders

John Tamihere: Succeeding with young offenders

Succeeding with young offenders

Speech to youth justice practioners conference, Hastings City Council Building, Hawke's Bay,


Youth offending The impression one gets from reading newspapers and watching the television news is an explosion of youth offending, of young criminals running amok, committing more and more serious offences in ever greater numbers.

Of course any crime committed by a young person is regrettable, and some of the serious violent offences that have been committed by young people are naturally cause for concern and dismay. But that is not to say that as a nation we are suddenly beset by a youth crime wave.

We see and hear most of the extremes - cases like that of New Zealand's youngest killer, Bailey Kurariki. The cases that make the headlines are tragic and alarming cases, but they are at the extreme of youth offending. They do not reflect the reality of most youth offending.

While the number of young people aged under 17 apprehended by police increased during the 1990s, from 32,457 apprehensions in 1991 to 45,522 in 2000, the apprehensions of under-17s as a proportion of all apprehensions has remained fairly stable since 1991, at between 21 and 23 per cent.

Children and young people are most often apprehended in relation to dishonesty offences such as burglary, theft and car conversion. The number of youth apprehensions is 11 per cent higher than it was in 1991, but has been declining since 1996.

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The number of youth apprehensions for violent offences has steadily increased since 1991, but apprehensions for violent offending have increased in all age groups, most notably the 31-50 and 51-99 age groups. So the question must be why we as a society as a whole has become more violent, rather than why youth have become more violent.

A few months ago I had a very useful and informative discussion with Principal Youth Court Judge Andrew Becroft, who is here today, and I wish to acknowledge Judge Becroft for his excellent work in reducing youth offending.

According to Judge Becroft's figures, about 80 per cent of youth offences are committed by about 20 per cent of youth offenders. These are the serious young offenders who have been described as "persisters".

The characteristics of this group of serious young offenders are as follows: • Nearly all (85 per cent) are male • Most (up to 80 per cent) are not in schooling • Most experience family dysfunction and have no positive male role model • Most (75-80 per cent) abuse drugs and/or alcohol • Many also have psychological issues • At least half are Maori

These persistent youth offenders are responsible for the majority of youth crimes, both serious and trivial. They start offending young - before the age of 14 and as early as 10, and start committing serious crimes quite early in their criminal "careers". They tend to keep offending well into their twenties and beyond, long past the age when most youth offenders have stopped offending.

Persistent youth offenders usually come to the attention of authorities early in life, and successful early intervention may make a difference.

They come from families who are overloaded with problems and under-equipped with the skills to cope with these problems. Persistent young offenders and their families have a range of problems and disadvantages that may include substance abuse, criminal behaviour, poor housing, poverty, poor educational attendance and achievement, unemployment, mental health problems, violence, abuse and neglect.

We also know that there are idenitifiable risk factors for offending, including: • Family problems, especially poor parental monitoring of children • Mixing with antisocial peers • Abusing drugs and alcohol • Anger and aggressiveness - both physical and verbal • Impulsive behaviour and poor social skills • Lack of cultural pride and identity • Living in a neighbourhood that is poor, with high crime and violence rates, in overcrowded housing or itinerant families • Having few social ties • Lacking vocational skills or employment

I can point out the families in my electorate - or in any community - who are going to present a whole range of social problems, be they in justice, welfare, health, education and so on, and are going to come to the attention of a variety of Government agencies along the way.

And I don't think we should be afraid to say that most of these families will be poor, and many will be families with intergenerational welfare dependency. I'm not beneficiary-bashing - this is simply the statistical likelihood.

Children in those dysfunctional families are behind the eight ball from the start. They are more likely to suffer a range of health problems and neglect in early childhood. They are unlikely to be enrolled in pre-school education, so when they get to school, they are already behind the children who had the advantage of early childhood education and have picked up learning skills at an early age.

At school they are likely to display behavioural problems, and will have low educational achievement. They are likely to be frequent truants, or to be excluded by schools. Their families are likely to move from place to place, meaning the children's education is disrupted by as much as a dozen changes of school in a year. Some are simply not re-enrolled in a new school when they move.

Children from these families are likely to begin offending from an early age, starting at the minor end of the scale, and progressing to more serious offending, graduating to the stage where imprisonment is inevitable. As they follow along this career path, they will cost the State millions of dollars, and the ripple effect in harm they do to their communities is incalculable.

So what can we do to intervene in the lives of these likely candidates for youth offending? There is no silver bullet, no easy or single solution.

Research into youth offending interventions One of the difficulties in determining what works best to reduce youth offending is that statistical information could be more co-ordinated and comprehensive in this area, but what we do know from international research is that youth offending results when young people fail to do well in the four key areas of positive development: success within their family, school or work, their peer group and their community. One of clearest indications we have is that interventions that help young people succeed in these key environments are more likely to be successful in reducing offending.

Another clear message from the research is that no single approach is most successful. Also research indicates that the most effective approach is to target multiple risk factors that lie behind offending, rather than deal with each problem in isolation. Interventions that are most likely to be successful are those which touch all aspects of a young person's life and environment: their family, school/work, peer group and neighbourhood or wider community.

Simply "getting tough" is not enough. Programmes based on concepts such as "boot camps" or attempts to deter young offenders from crime though harsh scare tactics and punishment regimes are not very successful.

Young people who are the most serious offenders usually come from families where they did not learn the skills and values they need to have a fulfilling and successful life. Social and behavioural skills, basic literacy and numeracy, and fundamental values such as respect for others are not instilled in them from an early age, and no amount of getting tough on them is going to change that.

This is not to say that these young offenders should not take responsibility for their actions - effective interventions hold young offenders accountable for their actions.

Strategies to reduce youth offending As I mentioned earlier, there isn't any one magic solution to the problem of youth offending. But there are a number of things that can make a difference.

The government's Youth Offending Strategy supports early intervention and prevention to promote the wellbeing of young people. This includes working with families in the early years of a child's life, as well as providing interventions for older children. It also includes the development of new comprehensive and intensive interventions for serious young offenders.

We need to get in early with effective intervention - why wait to act till the young person has kicked on to the next stage and started offending? For example, if the problem begins early, at pre-school age, why not be more interventionist in ensuring that young children do get early childhood education? Maybe that means going around to their house and picking them up and taking them to the kindergarten or kohanga reo, if that is what it takes. It beats waiting till they are in their early teens and doing robberies and assaults.

The strategy emphasises the need for improved support for the families of young offenders, including child health, early childhood education and parenting programmes.

To achieve this we are strengthening collaboration between government agencies and the community. We must continue efforts to increase the participation of community and non-Government groups in the delivery of key preventative services, for example in early childhood education.

We need to have greater involvement and co-ordination with people who have a stake in young people's success. And you won't find those people sitting in an office in Wellington; you will find them living and working out there in the community.

I won't pretend that a few decades ago when I was growing up in West Auckland we lived in some golden age where everybody in the neighbourhood was sharing and caring. But there were community sanctions in those days that meant that your conduct was "policed" by those around you, your peers and your elders. Those in the community had an investment in the good behaviour of their fellow community members, therefore they were motivated to ensuring that no one contravened the codes of conduct acceptable to the community.

Today our communities are more fractured and more transient, but I believe that community spirit and community concern still exists, given a chance. The public's response to and concern over crimes which have wreaked havoc in their communities demonstrates that communities are only too willing to play a role in improving the situation.

The strong turn-out at public meetings to address the harm caused by P in our communities also illustrates the level of public concern and the willingness of members of the public to contribute something to addressing community problems. If we allow people at community level the opportunity to be involved, I believe that community effort can be a powerful force in reducing youth offending.

It seems to me that a young offender is far more likely to be positively influenced by a person of some standing in their own community than they are by the many anonymous faces of any number of Government agencies. We need to do more to tap into the non-Government sector and community organisations in getting young people on the right track.

As I said, no single solution is going to work in isolation. The government is working on a number of things that, in combination, I hope will make a difference in youth offending:

Reducing Youth Offending Programme The Government is piloting the community-based Reducing Youth Offending Programme in Christchurch and Auckland. It is spending about $12 million over four years on the programme, involving 130 young people and their families a year. The programme focuses on 14-18-year-old young offenders, their peers, schools, families and communities.

Cutting truancy It is concerning that up to 30 per cent of youth crimes are committed while the perpetrators are supposed to be in school, but are not there because they are truant, have been excluded from school, or have not been enrolled.

Bailey Kurariki was among the worst examples of this. He was 12 when he and his associates killed Michael Choy, and had not been at school since age 10. None of the five schools he was referred to would take him and he was eventually enrolled at correspondence school. Further down the scale, crimes such as shoplifting and burglaries are committed by young offenders between the hours of 9am and 4pm - when they should be at school. This month the Government announced that it will spend an extra $8.6 million over the next four years on existing and new initiatives to keep young people in school.

That money will go towards increasing resources for District Truancy Services in problem areas, making it easier for schools to deal with parents who allow truancy, developing a database to track students moving between schools, helping schools with high suspension rates, and a software project to enable schools to automatically contact parents when their children are absent.

Methamphetamines I'm sure you will be as concerned as I am about the effects of P or methamphetamines in our communities, and its impact in contributing to serious offending. The Methamphetamine Action Plan announced by the Government earlier this year has put in place a 19-point strategy to counter the manufacture, use and distribution of this highly addictive drug.

A recent United Nations report showed that levels of methamphetamine use in Australia and New Zealand are among the highest in the world. The strategy includes greater search and seizure powers for police and customs, community education, and lowering the amount of methamphetamine presumed to be for supply from 56 grams to five grams. I hope that we will soon start to see the effectiveness of those measures in combating the P menace.

Reinforcing positive behaviour

As Youth Affairs Minister it often seems to me that the bureaucracy has a tendency to view young people as a problem, rather than an asset of great potential. It would be easy for youth justice to become so focused on the problems that rewarding the positive behaviour of those who are not causing a problem can be overlooked. We mustn't forget that in fact the majority of our youthful population are not offenders.

Increased positive reinforcement could stop these non-offenders being taken for granted, with the risk that they slip into bad behaviour when good behaviour sees no reward. For example Invercargill Police, in conjunction with the local movie theatre, are handing out free movie tickets during school holidays to young people they see behaving well in Invercargill's city centre. It's that sort of lateral, positive thinking that can bring good results.

As I said before, there isn't any one thing that will solve the problem of youth offending. But by working together on a range of things, I thing we can make a difference in reducing youth offending.

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