Seven years ago, the Principal Youth Court Judge, Andrew Becroft, declared that education was the ultimate crime-fighting tool. It was essential, he said, that boys were kept at school as long as possible. Doubtless, this notion was scorned by some, not least by those schools that favoured a zero tolerance approach to troublesome pupils. Figures just released, however, underline the merit of Judge Becroft's belief. They show that youth crime is steadily falling, with rates of police apprehensions and prosecutions of young people down to record lows.
According to Ministry of Justice data, the number of 10- to 16-year-olds being apprehended by the police has dropped to its lowest point in 10 years. Violent offences by children and young people, which had been rising until 2010, have also decreased. Additionally, Statistics New Zealand figures show convictions rates in the Youth Court are at their lowest point since records began in 1992. All up, the data represents a striking riposte to the widespread view that youth crime is rocketing out of control.
It is now firmly established that a boy attending school regularly is much less likely to become involved in crime, even if he is not achieving academically.
And that absence from school is closely linked to offending. It is important, therefore, for schools to have alternatives to suspension and expulsion. For many, this now involves an emphasis on restorative justice, which is designed to help offenders apologise to their victims and restore good relations. The declining suspension rate, prompted in part by this initiative, has been a major contributor to the falling crime rate.
The latest figures also reflect the input of the Ministry of Education, which has been working with schools with the highest expulsion rates to reduce these, especially for Maori and Pasifika pupils. Part of its strategy has also seen the formation of three clusters in central-west Auckland, Waitakere and Whangarei, where schools work together to take in pupils expelled from any other school. That has reduced considerably the average time before a pupil is picked up by another school.
Regrettably, not all schools have fully recognised the importance of keeping boys in attendance. Some, with the support of parents, continue to take a tough line. Pupils may be removed from school for relatively petty breaches of rules. Last year, Bruce Ritchie, the principal of Massey High School, one of the five schools that excluded the highest number of pupils from 2005 to 2009, defended this approach by saying he had "high expectations" of his pupils. Even so, he had brought in outside agencies to give "wraparound support" to pupils and their families to keep pupils in school.
Problem pupils do not, of course, come in one guise. One group who can easily be overlooked are those with reading disabilities. Overseas research shows that learning difficulties can lead to low self-esteem and poor behaviour, followed by expulsion from school and, then, criminal offending. It surely makes sense to allocate sufficient resources to such pupils because there will be a higher cost, financially and emotionally, if they eventually turn to crime.
Judge Becroft, commenting on the latest statistics, notes that most young offenders are apprehended once and not charged because they are not regarded as a threat to society. "They grow out of it - they don't need to come to court."
Schools, by and large, have also relinquished an over-the-top response. Society, which is still prone to bouts of hysteria over a small minority of young offenders, is taking its time catching up. The latest crime statistics should accelerate that process.