Derek Cheng takes a deep dive into what is actually going on with youth crime and what can be done about it.
Ram raids, smash-and-grabs, protests on youth justice facility rooftops: the visibility of youth crime has increased markedly, as have political frustrations, with both Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon now saying they’ve had a “gutsful”.
Both major parties have set out plans to tackle youth crime, while the Act Party wants to reverse a change it supported in 2017, which moved 17-year-olds into the Youth Court unless for very serious offending.
These announcements follow the swell of public opinion: 87 per cent of New Zealanders believe levels of youth crime have increased in the past five years.
But just because youth crime is more visible doesn’t mean it’s on the rise, even if a huge majority of people think it is.
So what do the statistics say, what downstream impacts can be seen from rising or falling youth offending, and has the change for 17-year-olds made any difference?
And with all bottom-of-the-cliff responses in the criminal justice toolkit, what’s lacking at the top of the cliff?
A drastic fall and recent spike
Recorded youth crime has been in freefall since 2007, a year when just over 5000 people aged between 10 and 16 faced charges. Last year it was fewer than 1000 people for that age group, and overall it was 1416 people including 17-year-olds, who have been in the Youth Court’s jurisdiction since July 2019.
The greatest decreases over the last decade have been in traffic and vehicle offences (a 71 per cent drop), property damage and environmental pollution (69 per cent) and, despite the recent jump in ram raids, unlawful entry/burglary (66 per cent).
The number of charges has also fallen, though not as sharply as the number of those facing charges; there were 10,701 charges across those aged 10 to 16 in 2013, but this dropped by 43 per cent to 6060 charges by 2022, and is still a decent drop (22 per cent) if charges against 17-year-olds are included.
Despite these declining trends, there was an uptick in 2022: a 6 per cent increase in the number of young people charged compared to 2021, and a 14 per cent rise in the number of charges - mainly due to 500 more thefts, though sexual assault charges jumped by more than 50 per cent.
Part of the increase has been attributed to higher court traffic last year due to the clearing of the Covid backlog.
But Chief Children’s Commissioner Judge Frances Eivers has also said there’s been an increase in youth crime, mainly impacting Auckland, Hamilton and Christchurch.
Theft was more than three times as prevalent as any other charge in 2022, but the number of young offenders charged with theft didn’t increase nearly as sharply. This follows a general trend in the sector: offenders are on average facing more charges.
There’s also been a much greater focus on non-punitive responses.
Almost three-quarters of those charged in 2021/22 had their charges proved, but in most cases they were still discharged without conviction.
Half of all those charged (up from 20 per cent 30 years ago) received what is known as a section 282 absolute discharge, where they accept responsibility and complete an intervention programme - this might include community work, or alcohol and drug counselling - following a Youth Court-ordered family group conference. After completion, the charges are tossed out as if never brought.
Sixteen per cent were given a Youth Court order, which can range in severity from an admonishment and discharge to an adult sentence in the district court. A further 6 per cent were convicted and sentenced in an adult court (very serious offending is automatically transferred to the adult system).
The remaining 26 per cent had their charge dismissed or withdrawn.
The first contact in the system is often with police, and most offending is dealt with via a warning or a referral to police youth aid.
There’s also been a massive drop in police proceedings (including warnings, alternative action, family group conferences and prosecutions) against young people, which have more than halved in the last decade:
- Between 2011/12 and 2021/22, the number of proceedings per 10,000 people aged 14-16 fell from 1091 proceedings to 407 (which included 17-year-olds).
- For those aged 10-13 over the same period, the number of proceedings fell from 263 to 109 per 10,000 children.
A justice sector long-term insights report into imprisonment found a similar trend, though for the 15 to 19 age group: “In the last five years until June 2022, the number of Police proceedings against young people had dropped by 58 per cent, the number of court actions had dropped by 64 per cent, and the number of warnings (largely Police pre-charge warnings) dropped by 72 per cent.”
Flow-on reductions in the justice pipeline
An academic paper published last month, A Sharp Decline in Youth Crime, looked at the downstream impacts of falling youth crime between 1998 and 2019, focusing on the rate of emerging adults (those aged 17 to 24) coming into contact with the justice system.
“Results indicate that the overall rate at which youth were alleged to have offended (per police data) reduced by 58 per cent between 2010 and 2018, which coincided with a significant reduction in the rates at which emerging adults were imprisoned, sentenced or remanded into custody,” says the paper.
The reduction in contact with the system did not apply for those aged 30 to 39.
“Additionally, the rate at which young people were formally charged in Youth Court fell by 73 per cent between 2008 and 2018. However, the rate of decline was less for the overrepresented Māori and Pasifika young people,” the paper says.
“Serious offending (including by minority groups) reduced at lesser rates than did less serious offending, while reoffending rates remained fairly static.”
The paper - authored by Auckland University’s Liam Polglase and prime ministerial chief science adviser (justice) Dr Ian Lambie - looked at 12-month reoffending rates for those aged 14 to 16 from 2009/10 until 2016/17, when it hovered around the mid-40s.
More recent data, however, shows the rate steadily declining from 2015 (49 per cent) to 2022 (34 per cent, which also includes 17-year-olds).
Whether there continues to be a downstream impact is unclear.
A recent Herald analysis found an increase in crime since 2019, including for theft (due in part to better reporting mechanisms), and violent crime (due in part to the introduction of new family harm offences). And youth crime increased in 2022, though it is thought to be partly due to increasing truancy - including because of Covid lockdowns - and the cost-of-living crisis.
These statistics only show reported crime, however, and that represents only a quarter - or even less - of all crime.
The latest NZ Crime and Victims Survey, which includes unreported crime, says that the proportion of New Zealanders aged 15 and over who have crime-free lives has mostly stayed the same - at around 70 per cent - since 2018.
But there were 705,000 more crime events in 2022 than in 2021, mainly for fraud or cybercrime offences. There was also a spike in interpersonal violence offences, but a smaller increase in the number of victims, suggesting that violent homes were becoming more violent.
Lambie told the Herald it would take a more in-depth analysis to see whether fewer young people in the justice system was still having an impact on crime levels, for example linking the data about youth crime to survey data about those same crimes.
Why the massive drop in the last 15 years?
Polglase and Lambie’s paper identifies a number of factors that could have contributed to a drop in youth offending.
These include fewer first-time offenders coming into formal contact with the justice system, as well as policy shifts towards greater use of police warnings and alternative action, improved responses to the drivers of crime, and less severe judicial punishment when dealing with lower-level offending,
The latter, such as in the case of Auckland shooter Matu Reid, is not immune to going completely pear-shaped in such a tragic way as to question whether the current policy settings are correct.
Their paper also speculated whether there were fewer offenders entering the system who typically start offending in their teens, engage in lower-level, peer-led offending, and who eventually go back on the straight-and-narrow when they grow up.
There also appears to be a greater proportion of youth crime committed by so-called “life-course-persistent” criminals: chronic offenders whose anti-social behaviour is rooted in an early childhood full of trauma and abuse, and who offend well into adulthood. They generally exhibit higher rates of neurocognitive deficits, entrenched violent behaviour, and volatile temperaments.
The justice sector long-term insights report says there needs to be further research in New Zealand about why there’s been such a big drop in young people in the justice system.
But an initial analysis of Statistics NZ data comparing successive cohorts of 17-year-olds between 2013 and 2019 showed several top-of-the-cliff trends. They’re:
- More likely to leave school with a qualification and less likely to be suspended;
- Less likely to have been the subject of Oranga Tamariki intervention.
- Less likely to have been on an income benefit.
- More likely to have accessed mental health services.
Similar findings emerged from a separate analysis from Oranga Tamariki, which compared “lifetime experiences by age 17″ across two cohorts: those who turned 17 in the five years to the end of 2015, and the same group but in the five years to the end of 2020.
As well as fewer young people relying on benefits and more access to mental health and substance abuse treatment, the analysis showed:
- Increases in the level of care and protection activity, but no substantive change in terms of young people taken into state custody.
- More use of alternative education and fewer stand-down days or school suspensions, but increases in the number of school changes.
- Fewer chronic health conditions, but rises in emergency department admissions and hospitalisations.
- Reduced involvement in the youth justice system, but no change in youth justice placements.
“Overall, the two pieces of research identified similar changes that could be broadly considered to be positive for young people, although some changes are open to competing explanations,” the justice sector report says.
“For example, the increased use of mental health, substance abuse services, and alternative education could either be interpreted as indicators of rising need, or as indicators of a greater proportion of need being addressed, or, indeed, both of these things.”
These findings, however, stand in contrast to warnings in Treasury’s 2022 well-being report Te Tai Waiora, which identified a number of upcoming issues for younger Kiwis: an increasing number of children not attending school, growing numbers of children without basic literacy and numeracy skills, and “rapidly increasing levels of psychological distress” among teenagers and young adults.
Act leader David Seymour’s U-turn
Last month Chris Hipkins ramped up the rhetoric on youth crime and announced a trio of policies, including more support for intervention programmes, making a new ram raid offence with a maximum sentence of 10 years’ jail, and building two new youth justice units for those with higher needs.
The National Party says the youth justice system works mostly well, but it wants to send serious recidivist offenders aged 15 to 17 to boot camps for “discipline, mentoring and intensive rehabilitation”.
In the Greens’ 2023 manifesto, the party wants a less punitive justice system in general, including more support for specialist practices that have had positive results. These include Te Pae Oranga (iwi community panels), and the Rangatahi and Pasifika Courts.
The Act Party wants a return of 17-year-olds being dealt with in the adult criminal justice system: a flip-flop on the party’s previous position.
In 2017, at the third reading of the bill that brought most 17-year-olds into Youth Court jurisdiction, then-Minister for Children Anne Tolley said: “We know from the evidence that this will set these young people on a better path long-term while also reducing risk and harm in our communities.”
Act had only one MP in Parliament at the time, leader David Seymour, whose vote in support of the bill was critical; the bill passed by 60 votes to 59, meaning if Seymour had wanted to kill the bill, he could’ve crossed the floor (the bill brought in a number of changes beyond shifting the legal jurisdiction for 17-year-olds).
Seymour didn’t speak at any of the bill’s readings in Parliament, nor was he on the select committee considering the bill, nor did Act contribute to the committee’s report recommending the bill be passed.
Act’s current policy document asks whether the change has seen any reduction in crime. “The evidence coming through suggests that lowering the threshold for the youth justice jurisdiction has not had its intended effect.”
And 17-year-olds are old enough to face adult justice, it says. “[They] do not lack the same kind of self-control, logic and judgement that 14-year-olds do. Yet they are sentenced in the same system. By the age of 17, offenders should be sent a stronger message that they need to be held responsible for their crimes and acknowledge the damage that their crimes cause their victims.”
This questions a rationale behind the change: the adult brain doesn’t develop fully - including cognitive skills and awareness of consequences - until the mid-20s. That means that younger people are, in general, more susceptible to things like peer-pressure, risk-taking or impulsive behaviour, which can all lead to criminal activity.
Some countries, such as Croatia and the Netherlands, have youth justice jurisdictions that include those aged up to 23, while in Germany it’s up to 21. New Zealand has two specialist young adult courts that consider cases for those aged 18 to 25.
A further rationale behind the change was to divert more young people from the “prison pipeline”, a phrase used in Lambie’s 2018 paper on youth offending, which described the pipeline as “the seemingly inevitable journey from early offending to eventual adult prison”. The Youth Court has more support and interventions, meaning it’s more expensive to have 17-year-olds there than in the district court, but this is hoped to translate to less reoffending and fewer victims, and therefore less cost to society in the long run.
The Justice Ministry initially wanted all 17-year-olds to come before the Youth Court, but following direction from ministers in the National-led government, it eventually supported automatically moving 17-year-olds to the district court if they’re charged with a crime carrying a maximum sentence of at least 14 years’ jail.
The ministry predicted that the change would see a 54 decrease in court cases, a 15 per cent reduction in reoffending and, with fewer reoffenders, better job and life opportunities for 17-year-olds.
It’s been three years since the change came into effect, but whether this has transpired remains unclear.
How many 17-year-olds reoffend?
“The ministry is not yet able to reliably examine changes in reoffending rates for 17-year-olds since their inclusion in the Youth Court,” the Justice Ministry told the Herald.
“However, the ministry’s predictive data indicates that between 2019 and 2022 there were over 5100 fewer first court appearances for 17-year-olds, compared with what would have occurred if 17-year-olds had remained in the adult system.
“First court appearances for the most serious offences have also declined markedly.”
In 2021 and 2022 combined, the ministry said there were 1006 individual 17-year-olds appearing in any court; 175 of them - or 17.4 per cent - were accused of what qualifies as a serious offence, more than half of them for aggravated robbery, 18 per cent for acts intended to cause injury, and 14 per cent for sexual assault. These teenagers were automatically transferred to the District or High Court, where 102 out of 175 (58 per cent) were convicted.
The number of charges for these serious crimes almost doubled in 2022 compared to 2021, while the number of convictions jumped by two and a half times. This was accompanied by a less severe increase - 60 per cent - in the number of 17-year-olds receiving adult sentences. The trend, again, appears to be more charges on average per offender.
This comes through in another statistic: there were 63 17-year-olds charged with unlawful entry/burglary in 2022, with an average of five such charges per person. The previous year there were the same number of offenders, but only three such charges per person.
The Youth Court, on average, sees about 380 17-year-olds every year, each charged an average of five times.
But per-capita offending is falling, according to the latest youth justice indicators.
For 16-year-olds, the rate in 2021/22 (223 offenders per 10,000 people) had fallen by 26 per cent since 2019/20. For 17-year-olds, it had dropped by 12 per cent over the same period.
Reoffending rates are also falling. The ministry records reoffending for those with no charges against them for two years, who then reoffend within 12 months of receiving a warning or alternative action.
For 17-year-olds, this reoffending rate was 23.1 per cent for 2020/21, virtually the same (23 per cent) as for those aged 14 to 17, and down from 25.2 per cent the previous year.
The other rate is for reoffending within 12 months of appearing in the Youth Court. For 2020, this rate for 17-year-olds was 35 per cent, similar to the rate for 16-year-olds (36 per cent), and for those aged 14 to 16 (33 per cent, down from 49 per cent in 2015).
Since the change came into effect, the per-capita offending rate has also dropped for both 18-year-olds (by 17 per cent between 2019/20 to 2021/22) and 19-year-olds (by 18 per cent).
Give the public what they want?
Both major political parties are notoriously reluctant to diverge from what their focus-group research tells them. So tough-on-crime rhetoric is no surprise if the public is generally more supportive of locking more people up.
The justice sector’s long-term insights report found a plurality (47 per cent) of New Zealanders saying imprisonment is being used “too little”, while only 17 per cent favoured the status quo. The 2022 attitudes were quite different to those in 2021 (35 versus 31 per cent), showing how quickly public sentiment can change.
“For many in the media and general public, youth offending is purely an issue of criminal justice,” says the academic paper by Polglase and Lambie.
“This line of thought sidelines the role trauma and contextual factors, such as social and economic inequities, play in the development of antisocial behaviour. As a result, media and politicians’ responses to youth offending are defined largely by their ‘punitive undertones’.”
This is understandable, Lambie told the Herald.
“The offending - some of it is quite extreme, and repetitive. It can be very traumatic on the victims. You can understand why people feel really hurt and aggrieved.
“These kids need to fess up, to learn, to face up, and people want retribution. If something happened to you, you’d want the same thing: consequences. But that doesn’t solve the problem.”
Some people need to be sent behind bars, he says, but for many whose behaviour can be changed, prison is just an “extremely expensive training ground for further offending”. And for young people, prison can become a matter of survival.
“That potentially may mean joining a gang. That’s typically what would happen.”
A recent report about gangs - co-authored by Lambie, prime ministerial chief science advisors Dame Juliet Gerrard and Tracey McIntosh (social development), and researcher Emma Brown - says there’s a lot of room for improvement in early interventions.
And the state has numerous chances to help those who are typically caught in an endless cycle of offending - those who grow up with abuse and social deprivation, reports of concern to Oranga Tamariki, out-of-home placements, and exclusion from school.
“For most children who offend, the offending behaviour continues into adolescence with increasing frequency,” says the report on gangs. “These reports of interaction with the state prior to a child offending represent missed opportunities.”
What can happen - or not happen - is portrayed in partially-anonymised contributions to an update to A Breakdown Across the Whole System, a 2022 paper by Lambie, clinical psychologist Dr Jerome Reil, former Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft, and researcher Dr Ruth Allen.
The report quotes a psychologist, Pania: “We seem to just miss the implementation of ‘OK, how do we respond?’ By the time they come to Youth Court, there’s a clear care and protection history but nothing has been done.”
And a lawyer, Julie, says: “I can think of an example of a child who has been in the Family Court for five years, maybe longer, and as soon as he turned about 10, he started offending but of course didn’t get taken into Youth Court because of his age and he’s now in Youth Court in a major way and resources are just being started to apply to him at age 14. He needed it when he was 5, not 14.”
Lambie says New Zealand still lacks the multi-agency interventions that would make the biggest difference, focusing on the child’s family as well as the child’s welfare, educational, cultural and health needs. This would ideally be accompanied by a boost in resources for education, welfare and health services, as well for the Family Court and community and iwi-led programmes.
It would also include a huge investment in staff, an issue highlighted in the recent fights in a youth justice facility, where 11 Oranga Tamariki staff were suspended.
“You’ve got staff in there who don’t have the qualifications, are poorly trained, and don’t have the ongoing supervision they need. There is a glaring need for highly qualified and well-trained staff across the whole youth justice and child welfare system,” Lambie says.
“We need to wrap support around families with intergenerational trauma. We need to be focused on culturally-adapted programmes that fit the country’s needs, evidence-based programs of early intervention.
“And I’m talking about the 5-year-olds.”
Derek Cheng is a senior journalist who started at the Herald in 2004. He has worked several stints in the press gallery and is a former deputy political editor.