13 Oct 2021

Children's Commissioner on youth justice reforms: 'It could work better'

7:24 pm on 13 October 2021

Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft wants action on what he says are ingrained injustices in the youth justice system.

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Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Judge Becroft has given the first in a series of speeches he will make in his last days as commissioner.

Today he outlined areas of the youth justice system he would like to see reformed, both urgently and in the future.

Towards the start of his presentation, Becroft said the youth justice system was working.

He said offending rates had fallen dramatically in the past decade and all of the key statistics in the youth justice system were in decline.

"But it could work better, and that's really the point of my talk."

'Unacceptable police practice'

Among the changes Becroft called for today was an immediate end to what he said were some unacceptable police practices.

They included the use of restraint chairs and spit hoods on children, the latter being used 129 times on tamariki and rangatahi between 2016 and 2020.

"United Nations have said children should never be strapped down in chairs, let alone in police cells by themselves," he said

"Spit hoods should not be used on children."

Judge Becroft also wanted restrictions placed on the police practice of photographing young people, and a change to the police fleeing driver policy

Finally, he wanted to abolish the option for the youth court to remand young people in police cells.

By Māori for Māori

Youth court rates and numbers for Māori in the Youth Justice system were dropping said Judge Becroft, but they were still disproportionately high.

Māori had a youth court appearance rate more than eight times higher than European and other groups, he said.

It showed a pressing need for a 'by Māori, for Māori' approach.

"You know, I'm not talking about anything new when I talk about by Māori for Māori approaches," said Judge Becroft.

"This was always the vision of the 1989 legislation."

Youth court changes

Becroft also wants the Youth Court to become standalone and fully contained.

He said it was terrific when in 2017 the government announced most 17-year-olds would be dealt with by the Youth Court.

However, a small list of serious offences were left out, still included in the adult system.

"As could have been predicted, it has worked really well. The system has not only coped, it's responded well to 17-year-olds."

"The time is on us now to complete that step and get all 17-year-olds now in the youth justice system."

He said confirmation of that change would be the best news to receive leaving his role.

Minimum age of criminal responsibility

In New Zealand, the minimum age of criminal responsibility is 10, but Judge Becroft advocated for it to be raised to 12.

He said no one here had ever been charged as a 10-year-old since at least 1974.

Becroft said he would like to see it rise again to 14, but only when the care and protection system had been radically transformed.

"Then you could get to 14. Because then we'd have an effective alternative."

Abolishing Youth Justice Residences

There are four Oranga Tamariki run Youth Justices Residences throughout the country and Judge Becroft wants to see them abolished.

He said New Zealand had a policy of segregating poorly-behaved children and young people from mainstream, and aggregating them together.

"When you think about it, that grouping together is not recipe for enduring rehabilitation. It just isn't."

He said the risks of bullying, violence and trauma were sky high and instead advocated for smaller, home-based secure facilities.

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