Key Points:

He was a South Auckland street kid who was "really into drugs and alcohol", his gang colours and roaming the streets with his mates looking for fights.

These days, he's happy to stay at home and is looking forward to the future when he plans to open his own tattoo parlour.

Tevita Laungaue was given his last chance when a Youth Court judge sent him on the MYND (Male Youth New Direction) programme, a 20-week lifeskills course of intense discipline and mentoring that is turning things around for some of the Auckland region's worst youth offenders.

"It's changed my life," he told the Weekend Herald.

"If I didn't do this I'd probably be in jail. I think that's where things were heading but it's all good now."

The 16-year-old, who has a long rap sheet including assault with a blunt instrument, common assault, burglary, unlawful assembly and multiple charges of disorderly behaviour, said he supported the Government's proposed boot camps and tougher measures for youth offenders.

"You come home with a whole different experience and I know the people I did the course with, well most of them, think the same, too," he said.

"It's hard but they help people like us to start thinking about what we've done and what we want out of life, rather than ending up behind bars.

"You start thinking about things you never used to think about."

Tevita, whose arms are covered in crude home-made tattoos, says he has changed as a result of the programme and the time his mentors have spent with him.

"When I think about how things were before, I realise it was going nowhere.

"I would drink a lot and do a lot of drugs, every day if I could ... My friends and I would walk the streets, get into fights, do cars, that kind of thing."

Tevita has been "out of trouble since last September" learning traditional Samoan and Tongan tattooing and contemporary design at an art course in Manurewa.

"I want my own tattoo business one day," he said.

Another MYND graduate, whom the Weekend Herald can only call "Jeremy", also agreed that the proposed tough-justice programmes would work.

"The programme helps you to think before you do things. I didn't really before, I would have just done it," he said.

Jeremy, who left school at 14, had problems at home, fell in with a West Auckland gang and began abusing alcohol.

Now 16, his life changed when he and some friends viciously beat a man and left him for dead alongside some railway tracks in Auckland last year.

The charge: grievous bodily harm.

"I regret it, of course I do," said Jeremy, whose other charges include wilful trespass, assault and theft.

The MYND mentors have taken an extra interest in Jeremy, whose programme finished last October, and have clocked up more than 500 hours of personal contact time with him.

Their efforts, and Jeremy's, are paying off - he is studying towards a career in engineering and has been called a model student by his tutors.

MYND programme creator Steve Boxer welcomed the Government's proposals but said any courses aimed at youth offenders needed continuity.

He was doubtful the military had the skills or experience to cope with reintegrating young criminals into their communities.

"There has to be a level of continuity between the different phases of the programme or else they will head from one agency to another, so they need to look closely at that," he said.

"The key is resourcing the follow-up... You need an intensive investment in time with them."

UNDER THE THUMB:
* The Government announced this week that 40 young offenders on the verge of imprisonment will be put through military-style boot camps each year.
* Another 175 will go to programmes with a military component.
* The boot camps will run for three months and will be followed by nine months of support and mentoring.
* The Defence Force will help develop the camps but the Government has not yet announced who will run them and what the regime will be.

...BUT SOMETIMES THEY JUST DON'T WANT TO BE HELPED:

Steve Boxer admits his programme is not a silver bullet for youth offenders. MYND (Male Youth New Direction) has a near 60 per cent success rate in cutting reoffending and has seen a 71 per cent drop in serious crimes from its graduates, but it has had its share of failures, too.

One boy, "Jason", was expelled for truancy, fighting and abusing his teachers soon after returning to his school in South Auckland following the programme's 10-day military-style away phase. To make matters even worse, Jason held up a South Auckland store for cash not long after.

The MYND mentors persisted, pouring more than 350 contact hours into his rehabilitation, but were unsuccessful.

"He didn't take his opportunities even though a lot of work was put into him," said Mr Boxer. "It's sad but it's his choice ... We haven't seen him since October, when the last programme ended."

Another from last year's May intake told his mentors he was looking forward to meeting boxer David Tua at a special function for MYND programme attendees.

But 15-year-old Carl, who has several burglary and vehicle offences under his belt, had an ongoing feud at home with his father. He never got to see Tua after running away from home two months after the away phase and is now in CYF custody.

There were also high hopes for his neighbour Matthew, also a MYND programme attendee. He refused help in getting enrolled in training courses, and when his mentors visited him he was usually high on cannabis. He is now facing burglary charges and is due to re-appear in court.

"We tried very hard with this young man but he preferred to smoke cannabis whenever he could," said MYND social worker Meauli Seuala. "We take the wins where we can and if it goes wrong we try to work out what happened so we can help the next young person."