14 Aug 2017

Has National gone Full Metal Jacket?

6:06 pm on 14 August 2017

Is bootcamp the government's solution for hardened young criminals?


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Photo: 123rf.

National plans to solve the problem of serious youth offending by sending people to a remote, army-run boot camp for a year.

But opponents of the idea say similar military style camps have tried and failed to work with vulnerable children - at times with disastrous results.

National’s Youth Justice Policy, announced yesterday, will establish a Junior Training Academy based at the Waiouru military camp in the Central North Island.

The camp will cost $30 million to run over four years, and Youth Court judges will be able to send recidivist youth offenders there for a year. It’s estimated the camp will take 50 offenders annually.

Justice Minister Amy Adams said the youth justice system worked well in general. “However, there remains a small group of around 150 young people who continue to commit large numbers of serious offences.”

But Katie Bruce, director of  youth justice advocacy group JustSpeak said sending kids off to boot camp was a bad idea.

“It’s creating another institution for our children and young people to fall off the cliff into.”

Bruce said New Zealand’s Youth Court and restorative justice systems were world leading, and youth crime was not as major an issue in New Zealand as people may think.

“In the last three years, youth crime is at its lowest rate in the 25 years that statistics have been available.”

According to Ministry of Justice data, the number of young people charged in court has decreased across all ages, genders and ethnicities over the past five years, though the proportion of Māori youth offenders has increased from 46 percent to 64 percent in the last 10 years. 

In 2006, the number of young people receiving adult sentences for crimes like rape and murder was 162. By 2016, this had dropped to 33 - an almost 80 percent reduction.

Bruce said she was hugely disappointed at what she called a “naive and backwards looking policy”.

The National Government had prided itself on evidence-based policy, she said, and it was sad to see “law and order” rhetoric rearing its ugly head.  “I hope it hasn’t been brought out primarily to get votes. I hope people can see beyond that.”

Devon Polaschek, a forensic clinical psychologist and professor of psychology, and of crime science at Waikato University, was more blunt about the thinking behind the policy.

“It’s a political move,” she said.

Polaschek said MPs like Amy Adams and Bill English were keen on evidence based policies, and knew that a punitive, military style boot camp wouldn’t work.  

In fact, in a 2011 speech, English called prisons a “fiscal and moral failure”. 

But Polaschek believed there was a significant portion of National voters who believed in punishment and law and order.

“National is the law and order party, so how do they speak to those people and at the same time not sabotage our criminal and youth justice budgets.”

But she said there were ways in which the policy could be successful.

“What they have done is dress it up as a boot camp, but they’ve included elements that may be genuinely helpful, based on research about what works with young people.”

The boot camps will involve literacy, numeracy, schooling, and - where needed - specialist alcohol and drug treatment.

Outside of the camp, whānau ora support workers will help parents and guardians with reintegrating youth back into the community.

Polaschek said if young people develop positive skills within the camps they could use in the outside world, it could help reduce reoffending.

“Punitive and harsh won’t work. Strong, inspiring charismatic role models who care about the people they’re working with could be good influences, but only then if they teach them things that will help them in the real world.

“The boot camp part is not needed. Knowing how to do 100 press ups is of very little life value.”

She said the government needed to do something effective with these young people so they were under control, not wreaking havoc in the community, while still remaining in their community.

This morning, Bill English told RNZ the military style camps were something that had not been tried before.  

But in the 2011 report Reducing Social and Psychological Morbidity During Adolescence, the Prime Minister’s chief science adviser Sir Peter Gluckman said it was important that investments into policies were based on well founded evidence provided by randomised controlled trials.

He also noted that boot camps and military style training were “found to be of limited efficacy.”

Academic Max Harris said the new policy seemed rushed and went back on a lot of progress had been made in youth justice in recent years which had led to a lower youth crime rate.

“To me it seems like a solution in search of a problem. In the current system, if you commit a serious crime like rape or murder, you’re already comìitted to the adult court.”

Both Harris and Bruce said there was a  “moral panic” about youth crime - in part exacerbated by media coverage of aggravated robberies by young people -  had a negative effect on how we see young people in our community.

Harris said one of the criteria for a youth to be send to the boot camp was to have been in a Youth Justice Facility before.

“I think we should address why it is that people coming out of those centres are more likely to reoffend.

“We should be improving the services that are offered there.”

Last year in a report for the Ministry of Social Development, Associate Professor Ian Lambie, a clinical psychologist wrote that one of the main purposes of residential youth justice programmes was to reduce youth re-offending. 

“However, there is growing evidence to suggest that detaining youth is generally ineffective and may even increase their levels of antisocial behaviour.”

Lambie said less restrictive or non-residential programmes should be the preferred option for youth offenders.

In May, the Children's Commissioner, Judge Andrew Becroft, said he was worried by an undercurrent of violence and bullying in youth justice residences. 

Last year the Herald reported that a former resident of Te Puna Wai o Tuhinapo facility in Christchurch described the atmosphere as being “like the Hunger Games”. 

Teenagers spoken to described being pinned to the ground and being locked up for 23 hours a day.

Writing for the Listener in 2008, journalist Matt Nippert uncovered years of abuse at part of a youth justice camp on Great Barrier Island, known to its inhabitants as Alcatraz.

“Alcatraz was where misbehaving boys, some as young as 13, were banished for breaking camp rules,” Nippert wrote. “Some report they were abandoned overnight without food, water, supervision or bedding, sleeping rough in the mud beneath manuka.”

In documents released to the Listener, serious assaults and sexual violations were spoken of.

William Bell attended during the 1990s, before he bludgeoned and shot three people to death at Auckland's Mt Wellington RSA.