Youth crime is steadily falling in New Zealand, with rates of police apprehensions and prosecutions of young people at record lows.
Ministry of Justice data reveal that the number of 10- to 16-year-olds being apprehended by 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. And new Statistics New Zealand figures show that conviction rates in the Youth Court are at their lowest point since the records began in 1992.
Principal Youth Court judge Andrew Becroft told the Herald the downward trend in offending made him "cautiously optimistic".
"Having been in the role for 12 years, the clear message is that far from skyrocketing out of control, youth apprehension rates have been stable or dropping year by year, which is contrary to the public's perception."
Judge Becroft said the latest statistics shattered the myth that New Zealand youths were out of control and becoming more dangerous. Most young offenders were apprehended once and were not charged because they were not a threat to society.
"We call them the 'teenage, adolescent, whitewater-rafting years' - the years when we know their frontal lobe is still developing, and when kids make some very dumb and catastrophically wrong decisions.
"They grow out of it - they don't need to come to court."
He said the majority of Youth Court prosecutions related to a relatively small group of around 3500 young people. They were typically male, not in school, from poor, transient families, and struggled with mental illness or addiction.
A cross-agency approach was needed to help these high-risk offenders.
"We get too hysterical about the great majority of young offenders who would only offend once or twice with good interventions and then grow out of it. And we don't get hysterical enough about that very small, problematic group who challenge us all as a community."
Judge Becroft believed New Zealand now had a "third-generation underclass", and breaking this cycle would be hard.
He said it was difficult to pinpoint causes of the downward trend in youth crime. But he cited a commitment to keeping kids in school as a key reason for the reduction in offences.
Former Principal Youth Court Judge Sir David Carruthers noted last year that the decline in the rate of school expulsions had contributed to a falling crime rate.
Sir David believed that schools' emphasis on restorative justice instead of expulsion or suspension had led to reduced offending and lower imprisonment numbers.
A Ministry of Justice report also credited the Policing Excellence initiatives introduced in 2009 for the fall in crime. These initiatives included the targeting of high-crime areas by police and a greater use of technology to reduce paperwork, which gave officers more hours on the beat.
The total convictions in Youth Court in 2011/12 were 189, a significant fall from the previous year and dramatically down from 900 in 1997/98.
Ministry of Justice officials stressed that the number of prosecutions in Youth Court represented only a fifth of total offending. Police took all steps possible to find alternative remedies for young people rather than enter them into the criminal justice system.
Judge Becroft said the best guide to youth crime was police apprehension rates. Ministry figures showed that the rate of apprehensions of children and young people had fallen by 23 per cent between 2002 and 2011.