18 Nov 2022

Youth workers challenge National's proposal to send teen offenders to boot camps

8:13 am on 18 November 2022
National Party Leader Christopher Luxon

Christopher Luxon is convinced National's plan for special 'academies' will work - others working with young offenders disagree. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Those working on the frontlines with youth offenders have put the boot into National over its proposal to send youth offenders to military-style camps.

The National Party wants recidivist teenage offenders sentenced to special 'academies' to crack down on what its leader is calling a youth crimewave.

Its policy would create a new criminal category - Serious Young Offender (SYO) - to capture 10 to 17-year-olds who've committed a serious offence more than once.

National wants judges to have the power to sentence SYOs aged 15 to 17 to military-style boot camps, run by the Defence Force alongside other providers.

Former Hamilton City councillor Mark Bunting, who led a crime task force during his time in office, was initially sceptical about the policy but has had a change of heart.

"Originally I thought, 'Oh, God, here comes another boot camp' but then I got to thinking if this is a really solid wraparound programme and there's a genuine desire for rehabilitation then I'm all for it."

Bunting said crime had permeated the Waikato district, hard-hit with ram raids in recent months, and National's policy put forward a solution he couldn't see anywhere else.

"The minister himself has said we need to take these little toerags out of circulation for a little while and the only place they're got at the moment is prison and that's a breeding ground for further crime and gangs."

National's leader Christopher Luxon said the policy was about reforming young offenders and he was confident it would work.

"These are kids who need to be reprogrammed and redirected very strongly, be held to account and to understand there are rights and responsibilities to being a New Zealander."

National rolled out nine-week boot camps when it was in government in 2010 that later reported high levels of reoffending and were shut down over an apparent lack of participants.

Auckland youth development worker and advocate Aaron Hendry said he couldn't understand why National was rolling out a policy that had proven to be unsuccessful.

"If we look at the research, boot camps aren't effective in reducing recidivism because they often fail to address the reasons why young people are getting involved in crime in the first place.

"And in some cases they can be more harmful, especially when they're not trauma informed and not understanding what those young people are going through."

Hendry has worked on the frontlines with youth offenders in Tāmaki Makaurau for 10 years and said the Covid-19 pandemic had highlighted existing inequalities that often drive youth crime.

Aaron Hendry

Aaron Hendry has worked with youth offenders for a decade. Photo: RNZ/Jessie Chiang

He said targeted interventions, which had proved successful, could be achieved without boot camps and disagreed teen offenders needed to be 'reprogrammed'.

"It's not about reprogramming, it's about the environment. What is happening in that child's environment that is causing them to get into a car and drive into a building?

"You step back and realise that's horrific; no one does that normally. So what is going on and how can we respond to that?"

Just Speak executive director Apiphany Forward-Taua said the policy was shocking and put it down to lazy politicking.

"We need to actually ask the question, ' Would Christopher Luxon let his children go into this situation?' Or would he say 'Oh no my children would never, ever do something like this.'

"It's just so awful that we 'other' particular children from particular communities, to our more affluent and more privileged communities."

While it was a resounding 'no' from those working on the frontline with youth offenders, those RNZ spoke to in central Wellington had mixed views on youth boot camps.

Some said the idea was "just stupid" and a policy that belonged to a former time while others said discipline and new skills could benefit young people who had gone astray.

With a series of political polls predicting a tight race next year, National will be hoping youth military boot camps will give it a leg up in popularity.

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