24 Aug 2020

Children's Commissioner wants age of criminal responsibility raised to 14

4:13 pm on 24 August 2020

Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft wants the minimum age of criminal responsibility raised from 10 to 14 years.

Children's Commissioner, Andrew Becroft

Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

A report from the Office of the Children's Commissioner says more resources are needed for supporting young offenders to turn their lives around before they reach the criminal age.

Becroft says many people won't be aware of New Zealand's specialised child offender system for child offenders between 10 and 13 years.

"This system takes a welfare rather than a criminal justice approach. It looks at children's offending as something reflecting a context where parents and families don't have the support and resources to raise their children safely."

But the report finds the system isn't working as intended and too many children are not getting the kind of support that might stop their offending. Some become serious youth offenders as 14-17 year olds and are dealt with in the youth justice system, and become adult criminals.

Read the full report 'Children with Offending Behaviour'

Simplification and better resourcing enabling the system to support whānau in bringing about change in these children's lives is badly needed, the report concluded.

Becroft said the current minimum age of criminal responsibility of 10 years old was far too low.

He said the minimum age should be 14, consistent with the recommendations from the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child.

"Most children who offend come from backgrounds of trauma and disadvantage. A criminal response to their situation simply does not work," Becroft said.

"Despite much talk about reducing crime and prison numbers, it's ironic that a very effective long-term solution, a focus on reducing child offending, has not been prioritised," Becroft said.

"We are missing a critical opportunity for constructive reform.

"An effective and well-resourced system to work with children who offend and their families can do a much better job than the criminal justice system."

The report's findings:

  • The present system for children who offend is too complex and poorly understood
  • Oranga Tamariki's Services for Children and Families and its Youth Justice Services need to collaborate better
  • Government and community agencies need to cooperate more effectively
  • Effective early intervention in the lives of children and their whanau too often is missing
  • Children with offending behaviour are too frequently disconnected from education
  • Although most children in this cohort are Māori, the Office was repeatedly told that culturally appropriate responses from Oranga Tamariki were poor and need to improve
  • Strategic leadership focussing on constructive improvement will lead to positive change for these children.

'The current system for criminalising 10-year-olds is so backwards'

Victoria University criminologist and associate professor Nessa Lynch is experienced in youth who commit serious crimes like murder and manslaughter.

Her feelings on raising the age are mixed.

"My note of caution is, if we do make that choice of the age of criminal responsibility being 14, we also need to consider what the alternative is, because children will continue to commit acts that cause harm and we need some response to them."

Currently, children in the 10 to 14 age group on less serious charges already tend to be dealt with through police diversion or care and protection agencies.

The commissioner's proposal suggests that all children aged 14 and under be dealt with this way, with some reform to the current system.

Professor Lynch said that system had its own flaws.

"Often that can actually have lesser protections for children. You've got very long timeframes. You might not have the same access to legal advice.

"It's not a zero sum game, so I think we also need to think - where would children be better off?"

Tania Sawicki Mead of the youth-led justice campaign movement Just Speak argues children would be better off if the age was lifted.

"The current system for criminalising 10-year-olds is so backwards I don't think it can be redeemed.

"I think the only way to respond appropriately to young people who harm, as a modern and compassionate society, is to create a system that is designed for young people - and that's one that is grounded in the care and protection system rather than in the criminal system."

Becroft said change should not take years - a national leadership group could be set up immediately to better advocate for children from backgrounds of trauma and poverty.

"They are, in a sense, representatives of families at the most disadvantaged and struggling end. We need to get in straight away to those families, cross-departmental, using community resources. That could happen, actually, in the next week, if we put our mind to it."

The report was based on evidence from 93 interviews with people and groups in the youth justice sector around the country.

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