Eugenia Woo, leading contributor
Recently, Justice Minister Amy Adams expressed interest in the Ministry of Justice conducting an examination targeted at finding out whether the current age limit of 16 to be eligible for the Youth Courts should be raised. The Youth Courts tries offenders below the age of 16, and the offending does not appear on their criminal record. This has been an issue that the Ministry of Justice has turned its attention to from time to time, but there has been yet to be any policy change in this particular area.
The reasoning behind raising the age limit for Youth Courts has been that it may cut rates of re-offending. Labour Party leader Andrew Little has expressed his agreement with this sentiment, and added that in his opinion, the best way to prevent youth offenders from committing more serious crimes in the future would be to keep them out of the adult criminal justice system. New Zealand has been criticised previously by a number of people on its age of juvenile jurisdiction, with many saying that the threshold of 16 years old is not congruent with the thresholds in other Western countries. The United Nations has also called upon New Zealand to increase its threshold, though its latest request made in March this year has summarily been rejected.
As with any conception of change to the criminal justice system, however, there are a variety of complex concerns that have to be balanced. In the case of Lucy Knight, who suffered a fractured skull after being assaulted by a 17-year-old last year, there is worry that raising the age limit for the Youth Courts will merely mean that current youth offenders are subject to lighter penalties for offending for a longer period of time. The Youth Court has been seen by some as too lenient when dealing with certain crimes.
However, there have been a number of humanitarian arguments for raising the age limit for Youth Courts, particularly because science has shown that the human brain does not fully mature for most until their mid-twenties. Studies have also shown that the brain changes significantly after the age of 18, which may be the reason why the United Kingdom, Canada, and the majority of the states in the United States of America and Australia are of the opinion that 17 years old is too young for someone to be in the adult criminal justice system. If the goal of our criminal justice system is truly to rehabilitate offenders, then criminalising young offenders who have the capacity to change seems misguided.
There remains the concern that introducing 17-year-old repeat offenders into the youth justice system could have an impact on younger offenders, potentially raising the chance of the latter reoffending. Amy Adams has suggested that a solution to this may be to place 17-year-olds who are on a “long-term life trajectory” of crime into the adult system where perhaps they would be dealt with more appropriately. The current system of dealing with serious crimes committed by youth already sees the Youth Court refer the most serious offences such as murder and manslaughter to the High Court. First time offenders in that age bracket, however, may benefit from the increased emphasis on rehabilitation and support that is offered by the Youth Courts. To continue putting 17-year-olds committing minor offences in the adult criminal justice system with the threat of imprisonment in adult prisons looming over their heads sounds like an expensive quick-fix to a systemic problem as opposed to a cure.
JustSpeak co-chair Julia Whaipooti firmly believes that the Youth Court “really does provide the opportunity for youth who make mistakes” and that such opportunities are non-existent in New Zealand’s adult system. There are also certain groups of young people within society who are particularly vulnerable in the criminal court system, and Guy Pope-Mayell from the Dyslexia Foundation has expressed that young dyslexics are one such group. Arguably there are benefits in keeping young offenders who are at risk or vulnerable in similar ways in a more supportive and less punitive criminal justice system. Figures have also been cited that show 15 young people were given prison sentences last year for their offending, so the Youth Court may not be as lenient of an option as some think.
Ultimately, the decision on whether to raise the age limit for Youth Courts will be a balancing exercise of competing concerns. Research has shown that it would have humane benefits, economic benefits, and the consensus in other Western countries seems to be that raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction stops youth offenders from falling into a cycle of crime and imprisonment.
However, there remains the issue of young people who are already repeat serious offenders and the impact of introducing them into a system with younger first-time offenders may be more detrimental than helpful. Social development minister Anne Tolley has entertained calls to raise the age of care from 17 to 18, which suggests that there has been recognition that 17 is just too young for people leave the protection of Child, Youth and Family let alone face the prospect of years of imprisonment and the more unforgiving approach of the adult criminal justice system. There is plenty of evidence supporting a rise in the age limit of the Youth Courts. With the Government aiming to reach its target of reducing youth offending by 25% by 2017, this may very well prove to be the way forward.
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