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22nd of October 2018

International



Prison teens: 'We've got with the game at last'

Children's Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft is pleased that 17-year-olds who break the law will soon be dealt with by the youth justice system.

ROSS GIBLIN/STUFF

Children's Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft is pleased that 17-year-olds who break the law will soon be dealt with by the youth justice system.

Hundreds of under 18-year-olds will bypass prison in less than a year when the most significant change to New Zealand's youth justice system since 1989 is implemented.

The law change bringing this about was initiated in December 2016 by the National Government, and the Labour Coalition Government followed through, allocating more than $13 million in the 2018 Budget for the transition.

A Correction Department spokesperson has confirmed that 254 17-year-olds were sent to prison in 2017, 241 in 2016 and 249 in 2015.

However, the law change will come too late for one 17-year-old stranded in prison with nowhere to go, but he'll likely be one of the last. 

READ MORE:* Teenager stranded in prison after Oranga Tamariki refuses to take him back* Millions pumped into youth support and justice services

The teen from Taranaki who was remanded to prison last week, was charged in the Hāwera District Court after he and two younger associates fled a youth justice facility in Hamilton on August 6 and are alleged to have taken a road trip to Taranaki using stolen cars. 

He'll be back in court on Tuesday for an electronic bail application, and Oranga Tamariki social workers will be there to support him.

But from July 1, 2019, most 17-year-olds will come under the umbrella of the youth justice system and Oranga Tamariki, as the law now acknowledges they are still children and should not be treated as adult offenders.

The new law is the biggest change to youth justice since 1989 says Oranga Tamariki chief executive Grainne Moss.

MONIQUE FORD/STUFF

The new law is the biggest change to youth justice since 1989 says Oranga Tamariki chief executive Grainne Moss.

"The Oranga Tamariki Act means we will be working with our young people differently, and for longer, so more tamariki and rangatahi continue to receive our support and get the best start to their adult lives,"  Oranga Tamariki chief executive Grainne Moss said in a statement.

"We believe adult prison is not the right place for most 17-year-olds, many of whom have complex needs. We strive to help our young people realise their own potential and build a future away from anti-social behaviour."

To cope with the 17-year-olds coming into its care, Oranga Tamariki has already opened four new community-based remand homes, increased beds in its secure youth justice residences and opened a fourth kaupapa Māori home.

It's hired 150 more social workers, found 160 more high-need placement options, and is recruiting more caregivers. 

"We have got with the game at last. We have a world leading youth justice system, so it has been something of an enduring shame that it didn't include 17-year-olds," Children's Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft said.

"It's entirely the right thing to do, it's what the rest of the world does, including Australia, Canada and England, and it's what the United Nations Convention [on the Rights of the Child] wants us to do."

Like many of the young offenders dealt with by the youth justice system, the Taranaki teen currently imprisoned has very complex needs.

He's been in care for ten years, had 63 foster placements and has a diagnosis of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and ADHD. 

Almost all (98 per cent) of the children referred for a youth justice family group conference in 2016/17 had previously been the subject of a care and protection report to Oranga Tamariki about their care and protection, according to a youth justice indicators report to Oranga Tamariki in 2018.

And studies suggest 30-50 per cent of children and young people in care will have Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, a neurological disability that can heavily impact tamariki, their whānau and the social workers, caregivers, schools and professionals surrounding them.

Judge Becroft said the youth court had many more options to provide wraparound support and programmes to help rehabilitate young people and hold them to account for their offending.

But the new law preserved public safety because prison remained an option for teens convicted of serious crimes including murder, manslaughter, rape, aggravated robbery and deliberate arson, and this happened to about 20 a year, he said.

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