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Andrew Becroft Interviewed by Jessica Mutch


The new Children’s Commissioner, Andrew Becroft, says the youth justice system is “tough when it needs to be” – and that public perception that it’s not is wrong.

He told Jessica Mutch on TV One’s Q+A programme that one example of that is a 14 year old who received seven years in prison for “two serious predatory suburban rapes” – and that it was right he was held to account.

However, Judge Becroft says teens up to the age of 17 should be part of the youth justice system.

“We talk about this awful concept of the criminal justice pipeline. Including 17-year-olds in the youth justice system would mean the great majority moderate-to-minor offenders could be taken out of the pipeline and dealt with in the community, collaboratively, positively, almost certainly stopping a life of crime then and there, but without failing to hold to account those at the top end who need the sterner, firmer sentences.”

Judge Becroft also said New Zealand was on a “roll of shame” in areas like education, health, offending statistics, and prison rates.

“We’re a country of extremes now. This wasn’t the country I was brought up with in the 1970s. We’re a country of inequality, income inequality.”


Q + A
Episode 918
Interviewed by JESSICA MUTCH

JESSICA From top judge in our youth court to judging the way we treat our children, Andrew Becroft is driven to do his best for our most disadvantaged kids. He has just finished his first week in the job as Children's Commissioner. I spoke to Judge Becroft on Friday and asked whether the government is taking child poverty seriously enough.

ANDREW Communities, NGO groups, government departments, ministers; child poverty is front and centre. That’s part of that long tail of disadvantage that we have in New Zealand - inequality. You can’t say that it’s causative and I don’t want the message to be that child poverty equals abuse or failure. I don’t want to load guilt on to those that come from that area. But it’s a high risk factor. It’s a very high risk factor.

JESSICA Because if kids don’t do well and if they start out in poverty with poor housing, it’s really hard to get them out of that. Do you agree with that stance?

ANDREW Yeah. It’s increasingly hard in New Zealand. We all have a dream that we can work our way out of it, but we have pockets of a third generation, permanent underclass now. I see it in the Youth Court. Most of our tough Youth Court offenders come from that group. It’s harder and harder to get out of that group. The statistics are clear.

JESSICA You have been in the thick of it, as you say. Do you think that the government is doing enough?

ANDREW Absolutely. I think the government takes it seriously. When you say enough, in a sense enough is never enough. So long as there is child poverty, there will always be a challenge. I don’t think any of us, I don’t think any politician, probably, is ever elected with the view that they want to make it worse for children. These are serious, long-term issues. We know, for instance – and this has been something of a revelation for me – that those over 65, on some measures, are six times better off than those under 18.

JESSICA Well, is that good enough in New Zealand, do you think?

ANDREW Absolutely not. Absolutely not.

JESSICA You say the government is doing enough, but are you prepared, as the new children’s commissioner, to criticise the government, to tell them where they need to make changes?

ANDREW That’s my role, Jessica. I need to be a courageous advocate and a critic. And don’t misunderstand me, you asked me, ‘Were they going enough?’ I said, ‘Enough is never enough, we can always do better.’ The government has taken it seriously but, clearly, if we want to address that imbalance with the over 65s being much better off than the under 18s, then we need to do more. Don’t let me be misunderstood on that. There is more to do. It’s a collective, collaborative approach. But, yes, the government needs to lead it and we need to set clear targets, measurable targets, for those under 18. Because things have to improve.

JESSICA You’ve only been in the job a week, so this is perhaps a difficult-

ANDREW Four days, in fact.

JESSICA This is perhaps a difficult question, but is there something, some tangible thing, that we can do now to change child poverty in New Zealand?

ANDREW Well, before I answer that question, let me say this - I am keen to say to New Zealanders as a whole that the issue of poverty and abuse is not going to be solved by a perfect Child, Youth and Family intervention system – if we ever got it. It’s going to be a community-wide approach. We can’t say it’s someone else’s approach. We are proud New Zealanders, we’ve got to own it ourselves. There’s opportunity for foster care, for respite care, for paying football club registrations and football boots and music lessons for kids. And we can do it. So, one of my big challenges is to say to all New Zealand, ‘Let us own this problem together.’ We can’t opt out. 0508 FAMILY is a number that any New Zealander can ring to say, ‘I’m in. I can help,’ in a small way or a big way.

JESSICA Do you think that is one of the fundamental problems here in New Zealand? That we say, ‘Your house, your business’ and we leave it alone when it’s things like child poverty, when kids aren’t going to school with lunches, when there’s abuse going on. Are we not involved in each other’s lives enough?

ANDREW The message has got to be if we suspect that, in a family, there is abuse or neglect - without turning ourselves into a country of snitches - we’ve got to blow the whistle. It’s the same number, 0508 FAMILY. We can’t live with ourselves if we think, ‘Well, something’s going on but we haven’t done anything.’ If we see something going on urgently, we phone the police. But I think we need to recapture a sense of community of concern.

JESSICA Because that’s one of the things that must have been, personally, really difficult for you as the Youth High Court judge, sitting there and hearing the horror roll call of New Zealand children who are killed by people who are supposed to love them. On a personal level, how did you cope with that? How do you deal with it?

ANDREW Well, it’s tough, Jessica. You’re meeting some of the most damaged and disadvantaged families and young New Zealanders that there are. It takes its toll, but equally, as judges, we were trained and we have to be dispassionate and make careful decisions and, to an extent, we emotionally distance ourselves from it. But it’s not perfect and, yeah, that’s the toll, in a sense, that’s caused me to take this job. Because I want to say, ‘I want to be able to make - in the best way I can - a difference.’

JESSICA How motivating is that? I know what you’re saying with trying to distance yourself, but the bit that has been absorbed for you – how motivating is that in your new role? How much is that a driver for you?

ANDREW It’s an absolute, total and complete driver, Jessica. I regard this new role as a huge privilege. It’s really a once in a lifetime opportunity for me. It’s also a once in a lifetime opportunity for the country to get our child protections laws in place and the best that we can - huge opportunities. The government’s ready to make changes. The community’s ready to be enlisted. I think this is, really, right time, right place to really make and drive through some huge improvements.

JESSICA Why is it that here in New Zealand we have this terrible child abuse rate? Compared to others in the western world, why do we have that?

ANDREW Well, we’re on a roll of shame, you are right. We have, in a sense, Jessica, a roll of shame in many areas of underachievement. Education, health, offending statistics, prison rates. We’ve talked about huge success at the top end, significant disadvantage and failure at the bottom end. We’re a country of extremes now. This wasn’t the country I was brought up with in the 1970s. We’re a country of inequality, income inequality.

JESSICA You were picked for this roll, as you say, because of your experience as the Youth Court judge, in part. One of things you’re calling for is for 17-year-olds to be treated as part of the youth justice system. Can you outline for me why you feel so strongly about that?

ANDREW Well, not only is it the right thing to do, most of the rest of the world does it. We’ve signed up to a United Nations convention obliging us to do it. Only countries like Somalia, Uzbekistan, Queensland and few USA states don’t. But more than that, there’s huge advantages in it. We talk about this awful concept of the criminal justice pipeline. Including 17-year-olds in the youth justice system would mean the great majority moderate-to-minor offenders could be taken out of the pipeline and dealt with in the community, collaboratively, positively, almost certainly stopping a life of crime then and there, but without failing to hold to account those at the top end who need the sterner, firmer sentences. I’m absolutely committed to it. I’ll tell you this, Jessica, we cannot raise the age to 18 for care and protection and not do it for youth justice, because most often these are the same kids. We can’t cut them in half and say for care protection purposes you’re 18, but for youth justice you’re 17.

JESSICA But what about those people who say we need to be tough on these kids early on, we need to take a hard line approach?

ANDREW Well, the youth justice system and all criminal justice systems stands for accountability. What I’m trying to say is there is a myth and a misunderstanding here, Jessica, and I guess this is what really concerns me, that somehow the youth justice system isn’t tough when it needs to be. Because it is. I have no pride, but there’s a 14-year-old boy who got seven years imprisonment. I don’t think the country knows that. If we have to, 17-year-old offenders, just like 14-year-olds, 15-year-olds and 16-year-olds, will be dealt with firmly, appropriately and, where necessary, severely. And the country can have confidence in that.

JESSICA That 14-year-old you talked about, what did he do?

ANDREW Two serious predatory suburban rapes.

JESSICA And that’s where we’re at with youth justice – a 14-year-old.

ANDREW Yeah, but remember this, Jessica; it’s the exception not the rule. And the high profile cases skew the perception. That was as serious as it gets. It was tragic. That boy was deeply neuro-developmentally disordered, suggestion of foetal alcohol spectrum disordered. Come from a family of abuse, neglect and violence. So, yes, he victimised others and he needed to be held to account appropriately. But he himself was a victim. That’s why I’m in the job. It’s that 0-5, 0-2; everything’s won or lost there, Jessica. That’s where we’ve got to do better.

JESSICA Is there any hope for that kid?

ANDREW Real hope if he gets good intervention - and the family does. Because he’s one of the most damaged young people in the country.

JESSICA You talk about a 14-year-old, older generations say kids these days are much worse criminals than they were a generation ago. Do you agree with that?

ANDREW Well, Jessica, you could be quoting an inscription on an Egyptian tomb, 6000 years BC. You could be quoting Plato or Aristotle. Every generation has struggled with youth crime. It’s always been an issue.

JESSICA Is it worse though, do you think?

ANDREW Well, it depends how you say worse. Actually, we have a much smaller group of youth offenders than we’ve ever had. What the public doesn’t know is we’ve got half the quantity of youth offenders coming into the system. But it might be fair to say that the challenges they present, that small group, they’re a tough group, they’re a challenging group. They’re as tough as we’ve ever had. Funnily enough, we know their names. We know who they are up and down the country. There’s about 1800 of them. It’s a small group. We know exactly who they are.

JESSICA You’ve just started in the job and you’ve got it for two years. What would you like to say at the end of that two years? If we’re talking again, what would you like to say that you’ve been able to achieve?

ANDREW Well, going back to how I started, I’d like to say that we had, as a community and as a country, owned the problem and did our best, all of us, to get involved; that we have a world leading – the best – legislative statutory framework for intervention where there is abuse and neglect available; that 17-year-olds would be in the youth justice system and we’d be working well with them; that we’d have the Māori disproportionality issue come down; that we’d have iwi and hapu working really strongly with government, facing this issue; and that, generally, we had a child-focused policy approach to everything that we did. And it would be great, Jessica, to think that child abuse and neglect rates were in decline.

JESSICA Thank you very much for your time. Really appreciate it.


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