WCJP - Principles of Youth Justice

Part of our Alternatives to Prison series by the Wellington Community Justice Project.

Principles of Youth Justice

by Juliet Bull

New Zealand’s innovative approach to youth offending should be incorporated into the wider criminal justice system to reduce our ever-increasing prison population. While the prison muster for adult offenders has been rapidly increasing to fiscally unsustainable levels, New Zealand imprisons far fewer youth offenders than in the past. Despite this change, the rates of youth offending have not increased.

New Zealand desperately needs to re-evaluate current sentencing practices. Our rate of imprisonment is the second highest in the world, with the Department of Corrections on track to become the largest government department in the country. The International Centre for Prison Studies described New Zealand’s sentencing practices as an example of ‘what not to do’. Current incarceration trends are not viable long-term: on average, it costs $90,000 to keep a single prisoner incarcerated for a year. Reforming our current policy to reduce massive spending on imprisonment is particularly important given the current economic climate and the spending reductions seen in other government departments.

The problem is that our current sentencing policy has shifted, under both Labour and National governments, too far towards punishment and retaliation (a sure way to win votes) with too little attention paid towards reducing future offending. Changing this focus is not about being ‘soft on criminals’ or to say they shouldn’t be punished – they should be. It’s about asking how we can reduce the rates of future offending. What better way to support victims of crime than to prevent them from becoming victims in the first place?

Reform of the youth justice system in New Zealand provides an example of this necessary shift in focus. The 1980s reform rebalanced sentencing policy away from a more punitive outlook, to asking why the offending has occurred, what the problems and needs of the particular offender are and how they can best be addressed. The sentencing of youth offenders is governed by the principle that imprisonment should be a last resort. Instead, youth are dealt with by alternative processes like the Family Group Conference, where offenders meet with their family, the police and sometimes the victim. The conference includes discussion of the impact of the offending on the victim and the formulation of a plan which can include community service, making reparation payments and apologising for their actions.

There is no reason why the principles which have worked effectively in the youth justice sphere should not be applied more widely, particularly in less serious, non-violent criminal offending. In a survey of Family Group Conference youth justice co-ordinators, 88 per cent believed that the conferences could be used effectively with adult offenders, including some who believed the process could be even more effective with adults that young people.

If we adopted the principles which govern youth justice – taking time to determine why offending has occurred, what problems need to be addressed, encouraging restorative justice processes and seeking personalised punishment for the particular offender, where imprisonment is a last resort – we could reduce our rate of imprisonment as we did with youth offenders in the 1980s. The $90,000 annual savings could be directed to drug and alcohol rehabilitation, jobs and skills training or other policies which increase the opportunities for offenders and reduce the likelihood that they will return to prison. We cannot afford to continue throwing money into prisons with the same appalling results; instead, we should rebalance our sentencing policy and priorities in line with youth justice reforms. Only with a focus on promoting change within offenders can we hope to reduce offending in New Zealand.  

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