We've all done things we're not proud of. I still remember stabbing my friend, Milly, with a pencil when I was 6, for example. The lead snapped off and lodged itself under her skin. It wasn't one of my finest moments.

There were other brushes with childhood criminality along the way. A friend's head bounced on the trampoline. An unintentional down trou at intermediate school. And I was one of the "good" kids. Luckily for me, I had a safe, secure, loving home and a supportive community around me that gave me the tools I needed to grow into a law-abiding citizen.

A number of Kiwi kids aren't so fortunate. For them, coming from backgrounds often riddled with neglect, struggle, poverty and/or abuse, childhood acting up can become something more serious.

And then, all of a sudden, they wind up in prison, following the road that was paved for them over years of systemic failure. Each step along that road represents a stage at which someone should've intervened and didn't.


Or, to put it bluntly, another $100,000 or so of the Corrections budget that could've been saved.

A report released this week by the Office of the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor basically said as much. Our approach to young offenders isn't working, and in order to turn our prison statistics around, we need to adopt a preventative model.

That's the thing about hardened criminals in our prisons. Once upon a time they were Kiwi kids facing more than their fair share of hardship. Criminals don't just materialise fully grown and dangerous, they are shaped and sculpted by a society that allows children to suffer in difficult circumstances.

Don't believe me? Consider these low points of the report:

•About 80 per cent of child and youth offenders grew up with family violence at home.

*Most of those in youth justice facilities have experienced at least two "traumatic events" such as being sexually abused or in danger of being so abused, being badly hurt or in danger of being badly injured or killed, witnessing someone being severely injured or killed, or experiencing a subjectively "terrifying" event.

•One in five youth offenders has a learning disability, while youth offenders are three times more likely than non-offenders to have experienced a traumatic brain injury.

•Between 50 and 75 per cent of young offenders have mental illness or a substance abuse disorder (compared to 13 per cent of youth generally). Of those with substance abuse issues, 79 per cent are heavy drinkers, and 65.5 per cent used methamphetamine in the past year.


•Most (87 per cent) young offenders aged 14 to 16 in 2016/17 had prior reports of care-and-protection concerns made to Oranga Tamariki.

Preventing these troubled young people from making their way into the justice system sounds sensible to me. It's cheaper to spend money on interventions for children and youth rather than building prisons and housing prisoners. It's hard to find a downside to preventing harm by protecting vulnerable children and altering their course in life so that they don't grow up to victimise others. And who doesn't want reduced crime rates and fewer prisoners?

A future like that, however, would require us to leave behind our preoccupation with blame and punishment. It's not like it works. While politicians of a certain ilk will rabbit on about being "tough on crime" until they're blue(er) in the face, research overwhelmingly shows that sending people to prison usually doesn't prevent them from reoffending.

The most common equation is this: lives full of struggle + prison = recidivism. Sometimes with the added bonus of new criminal connections and skills gained in jail.

We need a new way. It may be politically expedient to roll out short-term programmes that stoke fear, demonise criminals and generally do a big fat nothing, but New Zealand deserves better.

When politicians trot out the "lock up the baddies and all will be solved" card they are insulting the intelligence of the public. And if we keep falling for it, we deserve to be thought of as fools.


As a country, we need to demand that the Government of the day does something now that will pay off in years to come. (And, for the record, I don't mean boot camps. An alarmingly large stack of research says they increase criminality, so it's time we relegated that idea to the trash heap.)

There are lots of proactive steps that could be taken. Decriminalising cannabis so that young people with addiction problems get help rather than convictions is one. Others could include free and easily accessible mental health services for young people and funded extra training for schools on how to deal with vulnerable children with behavioural issues. At the heart of the issue, however, is turning our suburbs back into communities and neighbourhoods full of people who look out for each other.

The results won't be seen in the next three years, and maybe not even in the next six, but if we can start to wrap protection around vulnerable children now, it will have a dramatic impact in a decade or so.

We need to take a whole generation out of the prisoner pipeline, then another generation after that and so on. And we need to believe that it can be done.

The scientific evidence provided in Associate Professor Ian Lambie and Sir Peter Gluckman's report gives us a foundation upon which to build a vision for a safer New Zealand.

Ironically, a lot of that boils down to making people feel safe. If children feel safe, they are able to grow and develop in healthy ways. If parents feel safe, they generally make good decisions for their families. In homes where there is addiction, illness, financial hardship and an overall lack of safety, it's little wonder that negative outcomes are common.


Our justice issues start in childhood. We've got to do better for our kids.