Andrew CC

Vigorous discussions about the cut-off age of youth justice continue with an open-letter to Prime Minister John key calling for the youth court age to be raised to 18 years.

33 groups dealing with young people signed the letter, including Children’s Commissioner and former principal youth court judge Andrew Becroft.

The sticking block seems to be a misconception that serious crime committed by 17 year olds would go unpunished. Andrew Becroft disagrees.

The Youth Court has still open to it the very serious sentences where young people can be convicted and transferred to the district court for sentence. So if public safety is the concern, you can almost guarantee that every 17-year-old who goes to prison now, would still go to prison.”

There are so many reasons to support the lifting of the youth court age.

International obligations

New Zealand is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which applies to all children and young people under 18 years (not 17 years).

Current system brings more harm than good

A recent submission by The Salvation Army convincingly argues the current system brings more harm than good.

“….When we treat children and young people as adults in our justice system we create more social harm. We throw away the potential of these young people and create more offending in our communities. Over 90% of under 20s who spend time in prison are re-convicted within 2 years. Yet our world leading youth justice system offers an alternative route for young people with significantly better recidivisim outcomes, the ability to divert them from life of crime, and the opportunity to build a safer more resilient society“.

Brian science supports change

The science of brain development also backs the lifting of the youth court age based on evidence that the brain development of a young person (frontal lobe which controls impulsivity) does not mature until around 25 years.

The Brainwave Trust, an organisation that looks at brain development in children and young people, was also a signatory of the open letter. Representative Sue Wright said ..”there was now a scientific basis on which to say 17-year-olds should not be treated as adults by the justice system. In these mid-teen years which is about 15, 16, 17, adolescents’ brains are at the peak of a new phase of development with a pre-frontal cortex, a part of the front of the brain that does all of the consequence thinking and planning thinking, still in construction”.

Vulnerable young people are children 

The co-chair of youth justice advocacy group Just Speak, Julia Whaipooti, reminds us young people in the justice system are children from vulnerable communities and that more compassion is needed, saying “The question has got to be: what is happening in this child’s life that has brought them to that point. And I think we are just missing the point, and our government is missing the point, and I think the minister has missed the point, that we’re talking about children.”

The tide is turning on this issue as more and more evidence mounts that vulnerable children in the justice system need intensive care and support and not locked up with adults.