It is never too early to start intervening in a child's life to steer them away from a life of crime, a new report on youth offending in New Zealand says.

Targeting children young with social and mental health services – in some cases, before they are even born - is more effective and less costly than prison or harsh punishments when it comes to reducing youth crime, it says.

"It's a lot cheaper, there are fewer victims, and it gives them better outcomes in terms of their own lives," said Justice sector adviser Dr Ian Lambie, the lead author of the report.

His findings were based on the latest science on youth justice, and were published today by the Office of the Prime Minister's Chief Science Adviser Sir Peter Gluckman.

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It comes as the coalition Government considers an overhaul of the criminal justice system, which includes a focus on finding alternatives to prison and punitive measures.

Lambie said many of the conclusions were in a similar report 20 years ago, but the recommendations had simply not been acted on.

The number of young offenders in New Zealand's justice system was falling, and some of the programmes targeting them have proven successful. But more needed to be done to prevent them from getting into the criminal justice system in the first place, the report said.

Prime Minister's Chief Science Adviser Sir Peter Gluckman. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Prime Minister's Chief Science Adviser Sir Peter Gluckman. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Once they were in the system, they already had mental health or addiction problems, learning difficulties, or a record of abuse.

Young people who were sent to jail were more likely to reoffend quickly, partly because their brains were still developing into their 20s, the report said.

For that reason measures like diversion, restorative justice and specialist Maori and Pacific courts were more effective than jail or punishments like boot camps – which the report said actually increased crime.

Lambie, from the University of Auckland's psychology department, said the evidence showed the Government should place greater emphasis on stopping criminal behaviour before it started.

"You're talking about pre-birth," he said. "It's never too early to make a difference."

Many of the programmes and ideas for this approach already existed, and simply needed to be expanded or properly funded, or to be run by people with better training. They included positive parenting programmes, home visits, training for teachers in dealing with problematic children and programmes designed to improve self-control.

In cases where children had been abused or neglected, it was crucial that they received treatment before they turned to crime, Lambie said. Trauma could be treated as early as in infancy.

Mental health treatment and other early interventions could be implemented at a fraction of the cost of imprisonment, his report said.

Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft says a new report on youth offending should be compulsory reading for all Kiwis. Photo / John Stone
Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft says a new report on youth offending should be compulsory reading for all Kiwis. Photo / John Stone

Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft said the report was "deeply illuminating" and should be compulsory reading for all New Zealanders.

"It shows that for the serious incidents of young offending, the causes are common, deep-seated and start early in a child's life.

"As Children's Commissioner, I welcome the emphasis on a life-course developmental approach.

Becroft said the solutions to youth offending would not be found in tougher prison sentences.

"The real solutions are going to be early and concentrated intervention in families and encouraging attendance at primary and secondary school."

YOUTH OFFENDING - THE FINDINGS

• Youth crime is falling, but 15- to 24-year-olds still make up 40 per cent of criminal justice apprehensions
• Early intervention - even before birth - is key to preventing cycles of offending and prison time
• Brains do not develop completely until the mid-20s, meaning young people are more likely to engage in criminal behaviour
• Harsh punishments (like boot camps) have little deterrent effect on youth offending
• Many existing social and mental health services are effective, but need to be scaled up or properly funded