Youth offending drops, Oranga Tamariki says no room for complacency

7:41 am on 24 December 2020

Youth offending rates are falling, but Oranga Tamariki says that is no excuse to take the foot off the pedal.

New Zealand's chief youth court judge, Judge John Walker.

Principal Youth Court Judge John Walker says the figures reflect a push for early intervention. Photo: Supplied

A new Justice report has revealed offending rates among young people fell by 64 percent in the past decade, and for children it fell by 63 percent.

Principal Youth Court Judge John Walker said it reflected a push for early intervention, and effective work by Police Youth Aid.

"It also reflects what I'm seeing in terms of numbers of current cases in the Youth Court, which have been steadily dropping now for sometime."

One of the real strengths of the Youth Justice System was diversion, which was the result of about 70 percent of all police apprehensions.

Judge Walker said that was a testament to the amount of work done outside of court, to keep young people away from the courtroom.

It meant more time and energy could be dedicated to intervention for the smaller numbers who ended up in the Youth Court.

Judge Walker described them as a group of high-risk and high-needs young people, with a history of trauma, physical, sexual and family violence.

He said many had Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), autism and communication disorders.

There was also a high prevalence of head injuries, a dislocation from school and early onset mental illness.

Between 2016/17 and 2019/20 the number of rangatahi Māori who appeared in the Youth Court fell by 41 percent, from 1375 to 810.

But their Youth Court appearance rate was more than eight times higher than that of European and other groups.

They were also more likely to be remanded in custody, and commit an offence serious enough to lead to a family group conference or court action.

Oranga Tamariki youth justice system development director Phil Dinham said intergenerational deprivation and exclusion definitely played a role.

"What we can't walk away from is the fact that sometimes, our decision making amplifies that," he said.

"You'll see wherever the arrest rates for tamariki Māori, you'll find that maybe at each consequential decision making, there seems to be systemic bias..."

He also admitted there was racism within the wider system.

"Racism is a hard word, but I think that our chief executive has said that there is systemic racism within the system and I think we have to acknowledge that.

"I'm sure that every individual who works in the system would say 'well, I'm not a racist, that's not me, that's not the way I come to work.'

"But there's something in the system that makes it easier to amplify the impact of discrimination and we have to understand that and tackle it."

While the drop in offending was promising, Dinham said it wasn't a cause for complacency.

"When you see momentum and progress like this, it's not a time to take your foot off the pedal.

"Now is the time to go hard and go strong, because momentum is with us, so let's make all the gains we can and keep as many kids as possible out of the system."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs