The Nation: Greg O'Connor and Nessa Lynch
On The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Greg O'Connor
and Nessa Lynch
Youtube clips from the show are available here.
Greg O’Connor from the Police Association says a survey of frontline police officers shows 75% are opposed to 17 year olds being moved from the adult courts to the Youth Court. And he says 55% of dedicated youth aid staff also say 17 year olds should stay in adult courts.
O’Connor: “It’s pretty much purely based on the absolute belief that we will not be able to resource it”
Dr Nessa Lynch from Victoria University says 17 year olds have better outcomes from Youth Court, because there’s more focus on addressing the causes of offending.
She says Youth Aid would need more resources to deal with 17 year olds in Youth Court, and it should be given the resources it needs.
Owen: Welcome back. Earlier this month, the Children’s
Commissioner, Andrew Beecroft, labelled New Zealand’s
youth court age ‘an enduring stain on our justice
record.’ 17-year-olds are treated as adults in our court
system, and many say that that is wrong. I’m joined now by
Greg O’Connor from the Police Association and Dr Nessa
Lynch, a law lecturer from Victoria University. Good morning
to both of you.
Nessa Lynch: Good morning.
Greg O’Connor: Good morning.
If I can come to you first, Dr Lynch, why do we need to raise the youth court age right up until kids are 18? Teenagers are 18?
Lynch: Well, let’s just draw the parameters of the change a bit more closely. So, from the age of 10, if a child is convicted of homicide, they will be treated as an adult, and from the age of 14, we already have a safety valve between the youth and adult systems for these serious offences where public safety is at risk, and so the public can be reassured on that front. So what we’re talking about are 17-year-olds that commit minor to moderate offences, and as Greg himself said in 2009 in a Select Committee submission, the youth court is highly effective. It’s got expertise with dealing with the causes of offending. It’s got expert and effective and specialised staff. So what we’re asking for is these minor and moderate offenses to be dealt with in that appropriate environment.
On what basis? Do you have evidence of better outcomes, or--?
Lynch: Absolutely. So, when you’re an adult, you will be held accountable for your crime, but there isn’t the same focus on addressing the causes of offending. So our 17-year-olds are the adults of the future. They’ve got a long time ahead of them, and a long and expensive criminal career, if they’re not put on the right path.
Greg, you’ve heard what Dr Lynch has said there and you’ve heard the Children’s Commissioner’s comments that the current age is ‘a stain on our youth justice system.’ So are they right? Is this the right thing to do?
O’Connor: Well, when people like the Children’s Commissioner and others go to international forums, they do come away with their heads down, because I think that’s driving a lot of this. They get ideas – ‘We’ve got to do this, because everyone else does it,’ but at the same forums, often they’ll talk about what a wonderful criminal justice system we’ve got around youth justice. Can I just say—
Lynch: That’s why we should have the 17-year-olds in it.
O’Connor: Well, no, hold on, because we’ve asked our members.
Yeah, what do people on the front line say?
O’Connor: Let’s ask the people that know. Now, somewhat predictably, our front-line general members – 75% of them – were opposed to this. They’re the people that when they, say, have to deal with the offenders, it adds considerably to not only the workload, but also adds considerably to their ability to deal with others in the system and deal with them properly, just by sheer volume, and by adding 17-year-olds to that, there’s an absolute fear that those that are currently getting a good service from the system won’t get it.
So just to be clear, 75%- Just to be clear on that, 75% of the general police-
O’Connor: Yeah, but more importantly, can I just say 55% of our youth aid people who are working in the system – and this is somewhat surprising – 55% of them are opposed to it as well. And when I go through all the remarks, it’s pretty much purely based on the absolute belief that we will not be able to resource it and absolutely no faith that the necessary resources- For a start 75 more youth officers will be needed overnight. In a New Zealand Police which is creaking at the seams, no one believes that will happen. It’s pretty much pragmatically based. Philosophically, if we’ve just got time, one of the replies really sums it up from one of our youth aid people in Wellington district. (READS) ‘I probably should support this move, given what we know about the development of adolescent brains. However, I’m not confident that the Police, CYFs and Justice would have a realistic strategy and be properly resourced for this move to work.’ That pretty much sums it up.
Lynch: We’re on the same page here. I have a lot of contact with Youth Aid through the various work that I do, and that’s what they’ve told us – that they will need the resources to deal with this group. But I’m glad we agree on the philosophical point. I would entirely agree that Youth Aid do absolutely excellent work, and they need to be resourced for it.
O’Connor: Even philosophically, I spent all day yesterday speaking to people around the country to get a real feel for this. Two other things are going to happen. I always remember sitting down in Auckland Central at an intelligence briefing that all the staff that come on in the afternoon get, and they announced that one of their prolific offenders had just turned 17, and a cheer went up around the room. Now, that sums it up, because this belief that while the system does – and you heard those comments – generally there is a belief that we should be treating people at that level differently. However, there are still a number of offenders there that the system does fail. Not necessarily high-end ones. Sort of mid-level. And the other thing with the difference with the police through these statistics is that police deal with victims. Now, it’s easy to look at the system, the 17-year-olds, 16-year-olds, as being the victims, and many of them are victims that have ended up there, but we deal with the victims of crime.
Well, that’s a valid point. I just want to raise this. I’m going to give you a chance to respond, because it is all very well talking about the numbers. Let’s look at some pictures that we’ve got here, which are recent incidents that reflect the reality for some victims. So, we’ve got dairy robberies here, people wielding- I think one of them was wielding a hammer. A recent incident where a woman was assaulted, her vehicle taken. In these incidents, people have been referred to the Youth Court. Do you think, Dr Lynch, that victims would agree with this move?
Lynch: Well, I actually spent an hour and a half yesterday with the Sensible Sentencing Trust discussing these issues, and we were actually on more of the same page that you’d think. All the data that we have on the youth justice system would suggest that victims are much more satisfied with the youth justice process than they are the adult. And so those pictures that you just showed are of the high end of offending. As I mentioned at the start, we already would probably deal with that type of situation through it transferred to the district court. So if we have high-end offending, that public safety is at risk, we have that safety valve of the Section 2830 order. And there are young people every week who do get transferred out for a prison sentence.
The Children’s Commissioner-
O’Connor: Not that many. It’s only about 45 a year.
Lynch: Around 60, not including the ones that are jurisdictionally out first.
O’Connor: All right.
Because the thing is… Well, that’s the thing, because the Children’s Commissioner has also said, and he’s the former chief Youth Court judge, he says that most offending by 17-year-olds — what Dr Lynch, I suppose, is alluding to — is traffic offences, property offences and public disorder. Is that the experience on the front line?
O’Connor: You know, the other thing that happens is that many 17-year-olds, when they hit it, they’ve been watching their date arrive, and they know that from their mates that as soon as they hit 17, it’s going to get serious. All of a sudden the bail conditions will be meaningful. All of a sudden, that, actually, when they get brought back to a station, it isn’t going to be wait three hours and probably get bail. All of a sudden, they’re in the real system. So the experience, as I’ve gone around speaking yesterday, is that 17-year-olds often self-regulate out of the system.
So are you saying that some of these young people are so versed in the law that they pull on the handbrake at the point that they are going to flick over to the adult—?
O’Connor: Not only are they well versed, the people that are running them. You talk about the gang members that have got their kids running round doing burgs and things. They are running 16-year-olds because they know that there’s actually far more protection for the 16-year-olds. So those same 17-year-olds, they’re no use to them any more, because when they start getting caught for these burgs, they’re going to go, they’ll be taken out of the system. So everybody is— Hey, don’t sit there and think these guys are looking 17 is a target, not for these people. They understand that 17 is a change, and the big fear among police— And you should have someone from CYFS here, because they have got a bigger fear. If I speak to people in the low-mid level in CYFS who are going to be working on this, they have a bigger fear than police.
Dr Lynch, this allegation that some of these teens are working the system.
Lynch: I think there will be a certain amount of that, but what I would say to you is per violent offending, I don’t think people pause and say, ‘Oh, the law has changed. I’d better not do that.’ That’s heat of the moment stuff. We do know about—
O’Connor: Much of it. But those robberies are not heat of the moment. I used to work as an undercover cop. When I first started sitting with criminals, I understood how bloody smart they were. And they’ve got all day to plan. Police, everyone else, it’s just part of our day.
Lynch: But in terms of effectiveness, Greg, what happens when a minor to moderate offence in the district court, they’re going to get a summons, they’re going to be up in front of the judge for three or four minutes, they’re going to get a fine. And whereas in the youth court, as you know, there is that package of interventions.
So what is the advantage in your mind, Greg, of referring 17-year-olds to the adult court? What more does the public get out of it?
Lynch: There’s going to be a certain amount of deterrence for a certain amount.
O’Connor: Nessa, to be fair, right now you’ve got a system where there are a lot of alternative resolutions. The whole system is about alternative resolution. You’ve got Maori Court, you’ve got the criminal justice panels, you’ve got the drug courts. So the whole system now is about alternative resolutions.
Lynch: Because it’s based on the youth court interventions. All those programmes you talk about are based on youth court, because that’s what works.
O’Connor: And one of the biggest alternative resolution is when people now come into the system, are arrested, 17-year-olds included, they get pre-charge warnings. Those pre-charge warnings—
Lynch: Again, based on the youth court.
O’Connor: No, no. The irony they’re not available to youth. Youth go through the family— There’s one important point. The judges are making comments that this won’t make any difference. We can absorb this extra… The judges see a very small proportion of this. They get people in court for 15 minutes. For the two or three hours it takes to get them there—
We are running out of time, so the one thing you do agree on is the resourcing. So what would your appeal be to the government, Dr Lynch, if indeed they are going to go with this, if there is a political will to go with, this about resources?
Lynch: What I would say is fund the police youth aid. They’re excellent, they’re evidence based, they’re community based, they know their business, and they should be dealing with these 17-year-olds. We always have the court for the serious, but it’s police that make the difference.
But you need the money.
O’Connor: And agree. And also accept that there’s going to be a whole pile of workload down the track as well for those 17-year-olds.
We’re going to have to leave it there. Nice to talk to you both.
Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz