Challenge 2000’s Director Steve O’Connor was very happy to join forces with representatives from 29 other organisations committed to social justice and youth care, as well as notable law academics, to urge the government to include 17 year olds in the youth justice system [http://justspeak.org.nz/3246-2/].
The 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which New Zealand is a party, defines a child as a person below the age of 18 [http://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/crc.aspx].
This convention cites the special care to which children are entitled, and the necessary protection and assistance they must be afforded, so as to be fully prepared for a responsible and independent life in society. It states that children should be brought up in the spirit of peace, dignity, tolerance, freedom, equality and solidarity. The reality in Aotearoa New Zealand is that some children are not brought up in this spirit, they are denied this special care and protection, and they are not properly prepared for a sustainable life in society. We need to respond to this and make amends, not only for the sake of our commitment to this convention, but for our own sake – for the wellbeing of our present and future society.
The good news is that we are doing so, and we at Challenge 2000 are grateful to be part of such a dynamic network of organisations (listed as signatories to the above open letter) committed to this crucial work.
We are also aware of how fortunate we are to have such a creative and constructive youth justice system, which Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft describes as one of the most effective in the world. Such an environment addresses youth offending in a way which is consistent with the needs and rights of children. It offers a more responsive approach, which addresses underlying issues and creates opportunities to resolve these issues. Indeed, the evidence clearly shows that this reduces crime and reoffending [see Trends in youth apprehension: http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/opinion/84216875/stacey-kirk-raising-the-youth-justice-age-has-to-happen–so-whats-the-holdup].
The bad news is that, inexplicably, we are still excluding 17 year old children from this system, and in doing so we are acting without regard for their needs and rights, and ultimately to our own detriment. We are also acting in disregard of our commitment to protecting and providing for the rights of children. Specifically, the convention requires that we recognise the right of every child dealing with infringement of the law to be treated in a manner consistent with their sense of dignity and worth, which takes into account their age, and prioritises their reintegration into the community.
Plainly, the exclusion of 17 year olds from the youth justice system fails to do so.
This is in breach of the convention and it rejects the spirit of dignity, tolerance and equality; it is also inconsistent with our otherwise genuine commitment to youth care in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Queensland recently extended their youth jurisdiction to include 17 year olds, and was the last Australian state or territory to do so. According to Becroft, “With Queensland raising the age, it means we are out of step with all of Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and all but seven states in the US – most of the world in fact.” It is high time that we follow suit, and reclaim our sense of care and respect for children and their needs and rights, as a country.
Youth crime and its causes and effects are complex. Challenge 2000 attempts to work with young offenders, their whanau, victims of crime and the community in a positive, restorative, considered and proactive way.
We are often prevented from continuing to support young people who are in trouble, because of lack of financial and people resources.