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Never too early, never too late

Hon Phil Goff Minister of Justice

18 May 2004

Never too early, never too late

Speech to the New Zealand Youth Justice Conference Wellington Town Hall 9am, 18 May 2004

Thank you for the invitation to talk to you today about youth justice. I want to take the opportunity to reflect on the achievements of the past few years and the challenges that lie ahead.

It is important first to remind ourselves that the youth justice system deals with a very small proportion of New Zealand youth, and that most young people lead law-abiding lives.

Around 75 percent of young people in New Zealand never offend, and of the 25 percent who do, the vast majority offend once or perhaps twice and commit relatively minor crimes. It is easy to forget how well most of our young people are doing when our daily work is with youth in trouble, or when the media is consumed with stories about youth crime.

Almost four years ago now, the Minister of Social Services and Employment, Steve Maharey, and myself established the Ministerial Taskforce on Youth Offending. The Taskforce did not uncover a crisis in youth justice. Most people spoken to by the taskforce believed that the foundations of our youth justice system were sound.

However there was a sense that the system’s potential was not being realised and that improvements in practice were needed. As the Taskforce moved around the country they discovered that there were many things that could be done to improve youth justice leadership, co-ordination and interventions with young offenders.

The Youth Offending Strategy that resulted from the Taskforce’s work is a comprehensive plan of action to address these issues. The Strategy recognises the multiple causes of youth offending and the opportunities that exist at different stages in a young person’s development to prevent offending or reduce re-offending.

The theme of your conference is ‘never too early, never too late’, although it might rather have been stated as ‘better early than late’. The Strategy also clearly establishes the need for government agencies, communities and families to work together to respond to youth offending. This is not a problem that can be solved by one sector alone.

There have been some significant achievements since the strategy was introduced two years ago:

Youth justice leadership, advice and collaboration at a national level have been improved with the establishment of the Youth Justice Leadership Group and the Independent Advisory Group. These groups meet regularly and I take a close interest in their work;

Local service cooperation and problem solving is now much stronger, with 30 Youth Offending Teams (YOT) – comprising Police, CYF, Health and Education – operating around the country;

There have been many local and national initiatives to get young people back to school by reducing truancy and non-enrolment. School attendance is a major factor in stopping young people from becoming involved in crime;

A National Youth Policing Plan has been developed and will be released shortly. The Plan aims to ensure police policy and practice is aligned with the Youth Offending Strategy and that all areas of policing, not just Youth Aid, contribute to reducing youth offending;

Young offenders with significant education or health problems now undergo comprehensive assessments prior to their first Family Group Conference, and are linked into appropriate follow-up services after their FGC. This new service, funded in Budget 2003, is being rolled-out across the country over the next three years. When fully implemented, $2 million per annum will be spent on approximately 450 education assessments and over 1000 health assessments;

The Government has provided $14 million to establish two new initiatives for serious young offenders. One is Te Hurihanga, a residential and community-based programme being established in Hamilton for young male offenders aged between 14 and 17 years who are at high risk of progressing to chronic adult offending. The other is the Reducing Youth Offending Programme, a joint Child, Youth and Family and Corrections community-based programme for young offenders, which works in the three key areas of a young person’s life – family, school/employment, and peer group.

There are other examples, at a national and local level, of innovation and on-going good practice.

Many YOTs have recognised the need to focus on the small group of young people, often no more than 10 to 20, who commit a large proportion of the offences in their area. These are the offenders at risk of ending up in prison. In most cases these young people are known to all the agencies represented on the YOT. By using their collective resources, information and experience, these agencies can intervene more effectively with this group. There is inevitably a time lag between the introduction of new initiatives and being able to measure their impact on offending. The background against which their impact will be measured is of a reasonably stable youth crime rate.

Police statistics show that while youth apprehensions have increased in recent years it has been at a slightly lower rate than adults. We also know that the population of 10 to 16 year olds has increased significantly, particularly in the last five years. When demographic changes are taken into account, apprehension rates for young people have actually fallen by six per cent over the last decade. Youth offending accounts for about 21 per cent of total offending and this figure has not changed significantly over the last decade.

I would like to see better use made of youth justice data in order to provide a clearer picture of what is happening in the youth justice system at a local and national level.

Currently this information is held by different agencies but it is not brought together in a way that enables us to understand the system and youth offending trends. The Youth Offending Strategy identified the need for a youth justice minimum data set that would provide a core set of information to all agencies involved with young offenders.

The Ministry of Justice is currently working with CYF and the Police to establish what needs to be done to achieve this. There are practical issues to be resolved around the quality of the information each agency can contribute, the different IT systems on which the data is held, and the legal constraints on collating it in one place. Pending the resolution of these issues officials in Justice, CYF and Police are working on improving the analysis that is possible with the existing data, to support good decision-making at a local and national level.

While there have been many initiatives around responding to offending, a greater focus on preventing offending by early intervention is critical if we are to address problems before they become entrenched. Prevention can avoid both costs in terms of human misery and the drain on taxpayers' funds.

Thanks to research such as the Dunedin and Christchurch longitudinal studies, we now have much better understanding of the links that exists between early problems, caused by unstable insecure and abusive family environments, and later offending. Early intervention, which deals with anti-social behaviour and its causes at a young age, is ultimately a more effective and cheaper way of cutting crime. While most early intervention work is undertaken outside the justice sector, particularly in health and education, it is an area where those concerned with youth offending can make an important contribution. Over the next two budgets the Government will be increasing its efforts in relation to early intervention.

One area where the Government has recently made a significant investment to improve the well being of children and young people is in Child, Youth and Family. Additional funding of $111 million over three years and new leadership offers the prospect of more effective performance. My colleague, the Hon Ruth Dyson, Minister for Child, Youth and Family has already spoken about this. A high standard of youth justice practice in CYF is necessary for an effective youth justice system. The recently released report ‘Achieving Effective Outcomes in Youth Justice’ again highlights the important role Family Group Conferences (FGCs) have in the youth justice system.

This research dispelled a number of myths, such as that FGCs are a soft option. The young people interviewed for the research regarded going to Youth Court as easier than having to face up to victims, apologise and undertake reparation for harm caused. A constructive FGC can help prevent further offending. The research recommends that professionals involved in FGCs receive training and support to improve their practice and processes for managing FGCs and for monitoring plans throughout their implementation. The Baseline Review will allow CYF to act on these recommendations.

The ‘Achieving Effective Outcomes in Youth Justice’ research also raised a number of other important issues for the youth justice system.

Lower-level responses were found to result in less re-offending and better life outcomes for young people. There is a need to improve provision of drug and alcohol and anger management programmes for young offenders in some areas. The way a young person is dealt with on the first referral to CYF is likely to have a long-term impact and affect the chances of further referrals for offending.

Most of the issues raised by this research are being addressed through the Youth Offending Strategy. New health and education assessments for offenders attending their first FGC will, for example, help to improve services to this group.

There is however always more that can be done and the Youth Justice Leadership Group will be looking at new initiatives that need to be undertaken in response to the research.

Many of the improvements in youth justice are dependent on a high degree of collaboration between agencies at the local level. Close cooperation between agencies is needed to address the multiple causes of youth crime.

Youth Offending Teams have an important role to play. I have been impressed by the commitment and innovation of some of the groups I have visited. In Whangarei I visited a team that has worked particularly well together.

Before the YOT was set up they had little contact with each other. Some of the agency representatives came to the same table for the first time when the YOT met. They started with a series of seminars to learn what each agency could contribute to the objective of reducing offending. They did a survey – not only of the YOT members but of other staff as well – to identify what was working well and what could be done better.

This gave them a set of priorities that they could be confident reflected the real local needs. Then, together, they set about finding creative and practical solutions, including changes to the court room layout to improve young people's engagement; working with community groups to redevelop a hotch potch of small services into programmes targeted to meet the specific needs of orders and FGC plans, and working alongside school principals to address the needs of high risk chronic truants. There are other examples around the country that similarly lead the way in growing excellent inter-agency working practices.

The Government will be providing further support to YOTs in the Budget this year. $381,000 will be available in this year’s budget to help YOTs plan their activities and undertake local interagency projects to build their capability to tackle youth offending. The funding will be managed by the Ministry of Justice, in consultation with the Youth Justice Leadership Group.

While much has been achieved over the past few years in youth justice, we need to continue to build upon these successes on the insights provided by new research and the momentum created by the YOS, for the benefit of young people, victims and the rest of society.

As well as adequate funding and good systems, what progress we make will rely on the skills, commitment and dedication of those who work in the sector. Thank you for your efforts in what can be a demanding and difficult area.

I wish you well with the rest of your conference.


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