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Peter Calder on life in New Zealand

Peter Calder: Ray of hope in youth crime gloom

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It's good to see a court family conference end with a 15-year-old looking like he's getting sorted.

Youth advocate Helen Bowen says the money put in at this end of the justice system pays off. Photo / Natalie Slade
Youth advocate Helen Bowen says the money put in at this end of the justice system pays off. Photo / Natalie Slade

I'll call him Oscar, though his real name, like the names of everyone appearing before the Youth Court, is permanently suppressed.

But with his permission, and a lot of delicate negotiation, I'm sitting in on a family group conference where a plan is being hammered out between representatives of various agencies to try to keep him on the straight and narrow.

It's one day short of a year since Oscar, then only 14, first appeared before the court on several dishonesty offences including three burglaries. It's taken more time than normal to sort through some procedural matters, notably whether the youngster, who has a mild intellectual impairment, is fit to plead to the charges.

But on a weekday morning in a meeting room at the CYF Henderson office, a psychologist, social worker and the police's youth aid officer join lawyer Helen Bowen and Oscar's mum to talk about where he'll live, what he'll do after school, what other skills education he can undertake.

The plan, once agreed to, will be presented to the judge as an alternative to a punitive sentence.

The man from CYF wants to start with a prayer, and the youth aid policeman, Senior Constable Steve Waters, is quick to suggest Oscar might like to lead it. The boy looks taken aback but quickly sits forward and bows his head. "Thank you God for this meeting and stuff," he says. "I wish I can get this sorted. Amen."

As prayers go, it's modest but a a big step up from the sullen, alienated boy who first came before the court. In the past year, he's stopped seeing the gang that led him into trouble; he's all but completed 100 hours of community service, picking up rubbish; and he's scrupulously observed his 7pm to 7am curfew.

In this area of practice, Bowen is known as a youth advocate, rather than a lawyer. The distinction is an important one: her job is not to get anyone off, but to ensure her clients face up to what they've done and to advocate for them as they learn to straighten up and fly right.

The work in which she specialises came under threat from changes to the legal aid payment regime proposed by Simon Power, Justice Minister in the last Cabinet. The concern was they didn't take into account the long and complicated processes that Youth Court advocates have to go through.

Power's successor in the portfolio, Judith Collins, has backed off the more extreme proposals and the system is plainly delivering good value for money.

Bowen says cases often drag on as the assessments of various agencies are compiled. "In the meanwhile it can be a process of, for example, getting programmes in place for after school: Oscar's keen on touch and basketball, he's starting to learn waka. It's not a lawyer's job but we're doing it because unless you co-ordinate everybody you can lose your client."

Catching them young is the secret, says Bowen. "The question is: do you want that person turning into an adult criminal, who will cost $90,000 a year to keep in prison? That's a lot of money compared with the $28,000 average annual cost of one specialist Youth Court lawyer. It has the potential to be a very good return on the investment if he becomes productive or a good father."

"It costs a lot of money but our argument is that we have seen really good things happen."

As the discussion drones on, Oscar is bowed over, absorbed in creating an ornate and fantastical doodle, equal parts space monster and mermaid, on a sheet of legal pad. Waters throws his notebook down on the seat with a sudden slap.

"I'm going to do something I've never done before," he says. Addressing Oscar directly, he says if the boy completes the six-month plan agreed to, "I'll withdraw the charges". His additional requirement is for the budding artist to produce a work to give to the court.

The boy smiles as the implications of the offer dawn on him. Handshakes are exchanged and Oscar leads the meeting in a closing prayer. Amid all the despair that characterises our public discussion of youth crime, it looks like a chance at a cheering outcome, even if the story has a few chapters to run yet.

- NZ Herald

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