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Experts oppose justice bill

Criminal justice advocate Sir Kim Workman with his book, Journey Towards Justice. PHOTO/FILE

Public submissions will soon close on a bill which proposes demerit points for young offenders, but experts say it might not be the best approach.

The Oranga Tamariki [Youth Justice Demerit Points] Amendment Bill described the demerit system, stating it would “identify, deter, and penalise repeat offending”, while also working to “increase accountability and transparency within the youth justice system”.

Greytown-born criminal justice advocate Sir Kim Workman said there were several reasons why the proposed bill was problematic.

“When I first saw it some time ago I was quite concerned with it, and I still am,” he said, “What it seems to be trying to do is simplify the youth justice system.”

The bill would result in young offenders being allocated points based on the severity of each offence. The number of points an offender had would correlate to a pre-set consequence. Workman said it was similar to the driving demerit points system.

“But that relies on adults who make rational decisions about whether they want to break the law,” he said.

The approach reminded him of the disciplinary system he saw as a police cadet 60 years ago. However, cadets chose to participate in training, and their abilities and backgrounds were assessed beforehand.

“[The bill] seems to have been designed by someone with a military background.

“We could function within the system,” he said, “So the disciplinary approach worked.”

The proposed bill did not address the “driving factors” behind most youth offending, Workman said.

Mental health issues, neuro-disabilities, physical or sexual abuse, drug and alcohol addiction, poor education, and poverty could have a significant influence on repeat offending.

“So to try to ignore that and just treat people of the basis of a seriousness scale is just looking for trouble.”

Another issue with the bill was its lack of reference towards cultural and equity issues, he said. “There’s absolutely no reference to the over-representation of Maori children in the system.”

He said those who wrote the bill should look to the inquiry into abuse in care as an example.

“Because what they’d learn from that is that what they’re doing is likely to increase the level of offending,” he said.

“That’s the problem when you’re trying to simplify something that isn’t simple.”

Workman referred to his school days, when “naughty” students would embrace the label and create a competitive atmosphere, where the student who had been caned the most held a sort of status.

“I can see the demerit points becoming something like that.”

Workman instead advocated for an evidence-based approach to youth justice, citing the success of Rangatahi courts across the country.

“[The writers of the bill] talk about the lack of accountability,” he said.

“The accountability is there. It’s not about individual accountability. It’s about being accountable to the community.

“I know that there are people in Wairarapa that are interested in supporting not only the young people but also their families.”

Workman said international research showed a strengths-based approach, which included a needs and background assessment, could be more effective.

“Those sorts of approaches can get very good results in terms of reduction of offending,” he said.

“We know that negative approaches to youth justice don’t work.

“A programme like this would be at the bottom of the list along with ‘scared-straight boot camp’.”

Though the aim of the bill was to remove the subjectivity of decision-makers, youth justice was not an area to be automated, Workman said.

“They want to treat everyone the same, but the problem is they’re not.

“Human judgement has to come into it,” he said.

“Human values, such as compassion, come into play.”

Te Hauora Runanga o Wairarapa chief executive Ron Karaitiana, who has worked in the youth justice sector, said a holistic approach was needed.

“The key question is, are we reducing offending rates in New Zealand?”

He questioned whether a demerit point system would stop young people from succeeding and contributing to their communities as adults. The best approach was “one that we protect our youth so that they have a better outlook”, he said.

He agreed there was a need to address the factors which drove young people to offend: “These are the key drivers of committing crime in the whole world.”

While the demerit system could disproportionately affect Maori, Karaitiana said this was due to social inequity issues that disproportionately affected Maori, such as poverty. “It’s not a Maori problem.”

Violence towards women and social isolation were two key aspects of Wairarapa’s justice climate, he said.

“There are so many drivers [of offending] in Wairarapa,” Karaitiana said.

“Our high gang rates play a part in terms of our offending.

“The question is, do we have the right services?”

However, overall we would not be impacted significantly differently to the rest of the country, should the bill become law.

The driving demerit points system often forced people to re-offend with increasing severity, Karaitiana said. “Because they can’t afford to pay their fines, then they get disqualified.”

While he did not think the bill’s passing would impact work in the youth justice sector in Wairarapa, he also did not think demerit points were the solution to youth offending.

“I think they’ll drive different behaviours,” he said.

“Our youth need to understand through youth justice that it’s okay to make mistakes.

“We’re all responsible for our youth in this community.

“That’s a different conundrum to just looking at offending.”

  • Public submissions on the Oranga Tamariki [Youth Justice Demerit Points] Amendment Bill close at midnight on February 3, 2021.

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