Thursday, April 06, 2006

John Langley: Harsher youth law will solve nothing

New Zealand once again faces a policy shambles in the justice area. The Young Offenders (Serious Crimes) Bill seeks to reduce the age of offenders who can be prosecuted in criminal courts from 14 to 12.

The impact of this would be to remove the jurisdiction of the Youth Court from almost all criminal offences involving young people.

This misguided idea follows hot on the heels of an equally unfortunate piece of public policy which provided for increased sentences for some crimes, based on the false premise that sentence length and offending rates are somehow connected.

As a result, our jails are filled to bursting point and there has been no impact whatsoever on offending rates.

When developing any form of policy, three options - or combinations of them - can be adopted.

The first is to develop policy more or less on public opinion, based on the premise that if most people think something is the case, it must be so.

That is how prison sentences were increased. Several years ago a referendum asked whether or not we wanted longer sentences for some crimes.

More than 90 per cent voted in favour of longer sentences, and most of those people almost certainly did so because they thought it would deter others from offending and the crime rate would fall. Wrong.

Despite all the evidence, despite all the good and bad practice that we could have called on, the policymakers were guided by public opinion - and it has created a mess of monumental proportions.

The second means of developing and implementing policy is based on some form of philosophy or dogma.

For example, neo-conservative groups tend to view human nature and behaviour in pessimistic terms, which leads them to a view that the way to deal with aberrant behaviour is to punish, and punish hard. Some of this stems from biblical examples such as "spare the rod and spoil the child".

The result of this in terms of justice policy is a greater emphasis on punishment than on rehabilitation.

It is not a coincidence that the National Party seems to be very reluctant to revisit its stance on the use of prisons, even in the face of groups such as the Sensible Sentencing Trust, which seem to be more open-minded.

The Young Offenders Bill is an example of the influences of both public opinion and dogma.

It is based on the view that somehow this might be what the public wants in terms of getting tougher on young offenders.

It is also based on the mistaken view that making children appear in an adult court will, by definition, expose them to the same level of punishment as those adults and thus stop others offending.

Neither view is sensible or supported by any semblance of evidence.

No one would seriously suggest that a young person who is about steal a car or burgle a house will think: "I'd better not do this as I might have to appear in the District Court instead of the Youth Court."

When put like this it seems ridiculous. That is because it is ridiculous.

The responses made by people old and young, the stimuli they respond to, and the behaviour in which they engage, are not governed by such reasoning and never have been.

Finally, policy can be determined on the basis of evidence and research.

What we think is obvious is not always so.

Very often, what we witness in terms of offending, both from young people and adults, is influenced by many and varied factors.

To suggest that by simply increasing a sentence length, or reducing an age when children appear in a particular court, will make one iota of difference is nothing short of fantasy.

Worse, it is a waste of our time and money for no other gain than a short-term political expediency.

What is required is to better understand the factors that influence the offending of our children and young people and to address those factors.

There are many common elements. Of the mostly boys and young men who come before the youth justice system very few, if any, would benefit from appearing before the District Court. That is because for the most part they do not need to be kept away from us.

To have them appear before the District Court rather than the Youth Court will remove the options, flexibility and innovation that our system has the potential to deliver.

It will simply result in more of the same: harsher penalties, lock them up sooner and for longer, and for us to beat our chests in a futile display of societal toughness in dealing with those we have failed. It is little short of a disgrace.

There are some young people who do need to be locked up, but only a very small number.

What almost all young offenders need is the exact opposite. They need to come to trust the rest of us. They need to learn stuff. Most of all, they need to know that there is a place for them somewhere in our families, schools, communities and workforce.

The profile for most is depressingly similar.

Many are from very dysfunctional families. Most have lived in many places and attended many schools.

Most have learned not to trust the adults in their lives because they have constantly been let down.

Many have suffered abuse and have been scarred in ways that most of us will never understand.

And, in an overwhelming number of cases, they are barely literate, numerate and have never learned to relate to others in other than destructive ways. None of that is an excuse. It is the starting point.

With the correct interventions, carried out by those who know what they are doing, it is entirely possible to make important changes in the lives of these children and young people.

But those interventions must be determined on the basis of sound evidence and practice, not public prejudice or the blowing of a particular political wind.

Public opinion and political whim are going to play a part.

They always have and it would be unrealistic not to expect that in the future.

But both these influences must be balanced by good research and what we actually know to be the case, not just what we think is the case. The two are not the same.

Unless such a balance is achieved in key areas of justice policy there is little doubt that we will blunder on making the same mistakes we have in this area and wonder why it hasn't worked.

That is what happened when some sentences were increased.

It is exactly what will happen if Ron Mark is successful in having children appear in the adult courts.

We don't have any more time to waste on this kind of legislation. Responses to criminal offending, particularly from young offenders, should be considered and intelligent.

Instead of assuming that tougher is always better, let's start looking for the real cures and bravely pursuing them.

And let's accept the fact that within the youth justice system, for all its faults, there is much greater opportunity to bring about change than anything suggested in this misguided bill.

* Dr John Langley is a member of the Ministerial Independent Advisory Group on Youth Offending.

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