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Punitive Responses To Children Won’t Build Safer Communities – Chief Children’s Commissioner

Military-style academies and the establishment of a Young Serious Offender category for children announced yesterday are not the answer to reducing youth crime, says Chief Children’s Commissioner Dr Claire Achmad.

“We all want our communities to be safe places, where no child or young person turns to crime – and I acknowledge that when young people do offend, they need to be held accountable for the harm caused.

“However, I’m concerned that the creation of a new ‘Young Serious Offender Category’ will have unnecessarily punitive impacts for young people – and especially for our mokopuna Māori, mokopuna with FASD and other neuro-disabilities, and those who have been in our care and protection system. These are groups of mokopuna who are already overrepresented in the youth justice system.

“We’re talking about children who already feel like they don’t have a place in our communities and society. Stigmatising them further by labelling them as a ‘Young Serious Offender’ will be hard to move on from. This is not consistent with a children’s rights approach to youth justice, which emphasises community-based, preventative solutions. We can create accountability without having this new category,” she says.

Yesterday’s announcement included details of a military-style academy programme to be trialled from late July with children already in youth justice facilities.

“While I see some positive components in what the Government is planning in the wider programme, such as the promise of comprehensive assessment and bespoke plans, mentoring and transition support, from a children’s rights perspective nothing that is ‘military style’ should be used in the rehabilitation of our young people.

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“International and domestic evidence is clear that these type of approaches don’t work in the long-term. The wider evidence shows that programmes that focus on positive prevention and early intervention – grounded in work led by iwi and community organisations – is what works and is already working in this context.

“I’d like to see the Government scaling up these initiatives, which show that we don’t need a ‘military style’ component to be included to make change.”

A social investment approach would see a renewed focus on the causes of youth offending, says Dr Achmad.

“I call on the Government to focus on and invest in addressing the underlying drivers of offending. Prevention and early intervention is the key here, not criminalising children – this doesn’t make our communities safer, or help society in the long-term.

“Young people who have offended have directly told me they first and foremost need a loving and safe whānau who have everything they need to get by, safe and secure housing, and access to education where they feel they belong.

“They’ve also told me they need financial resources so their whānau aren’t under constant toxic stress. Let’s focus as a country on creating an Aotearoa New Zealand that provides a great offer to all our children and young people – so they can see themselves as part of it now and into the future, a country and communities that support their dreams and aspirations – so we don’t see them turning to crime.”

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