Academic journal article Social Policy Journal of New Zealand

Achieving the Diversion and Decarceration of Young Offenders in New Zealand

Academic journal article Social Policy Journal of New Zealand

Achieving the Diversion and Decarceration of Young Offenders in New Zealand

Article excerpt

The diversion of young people from criminal proceedings and the decreased use of custody are key goals of the youth justice system introduced in the Children, Young Persons, and Their Families Act 1989. This paper uses data from studies of 1003 young people who had family group conferences in 1998 and 1794 young people dealt with by the police in 2000/01 to examine the extent to which these goals are being achieved. In addition, national statistics supplied by the Ministry of Justice are used to compare patterns of youth offending and responses to it from before the Act to 2001. The data show that young people are being diverted and custodial options are less common than before the Act. At the same time, more young people are being made accountable for their offending than in the past. Furthermore, the seriousness of offending has not increased. These findings indicate that even greater use could be made of diversionary options through the police and direct referrals for family group conferences without compromising the extent to which young people are made accountable. Such changes would decrease both the stigmatisation associated with criminal proceedings for young people and the costs of Youth Court proceedings. Savings could be used to provide more programmes for young offenders and better support for families.

INTRODUCTION

The goals of the Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act 1989 (the Act) focus on diverting young people from criminal proceedings and reducing the extent to which they are placed in residential institutions or given custodial sentences. This paper sets out to examine the extent to which this has been achieved in the years following the introduction of the 1989 legislation.

Diversion and decarceration in criminal justice processes have a range of meanings. The Act gives definition to these principles in the context of youth justice in New Zealand by de-emphasising the use of formal court proceedings. The first of the youth justice principles in the Act (s208(a)) states that "unless the public interest requires otherwise, criminal proceedings should not be instituted against a child or young person if there is an alternative means of dealing with the matter". This implies that arrest and the laying of charges in the Youth Court should be avoided wherever possible. This section also has implications for the outcomes: in particular, it signifies that Youth Court orders should only be used when necessary and a conviction and transfer to the adult courts should be used even more sparingly.

Section 4(f) of the Act requires that children and young people be dealt with in ways that "give(s) them the opportunity to develop in responsible and socially beneficial ways". This has implications for the selection of responses to offending and the type of sanctions that are adopted. It shifts the emphasis from punitive and custodial responses to responses that keep the child or young person in the community. This is made even more explicit in the youth justice principles. Section 208(d) states that "a child or young person who commits an offence should be kept in the community so far that is practicable and consistent with the need to ensure the safety of the public". It also places an emphasis on rehabilitative and reintegrative responses provided within the community context. Section 208(f) states that "any sanction must take the form most likely to promote the development of the child or young person within his or her family, whanau, hapu or Iwi and must take the least restrictive form that is appropriate in the circumstances".

To determine the extent to which diversion and decarceration have been achieved in the new system, data have been analysed as part of a major study of the youth justice system to examine:

* the use of arrest: how often it occurs and to what extent it is followed by the laying of charges or not;

* the laying of charges in the Youth Court: in particular, how this is related to the seriousness of offending and to what extent it appears justified in order to achieve the desired outcomes;

* the use by the police of informal diversionary procedures and family group conference referrals;

* the use of Youth Court orders: the extent to which recommendations for orders relates to seriousness of offending and whether there is any evidence that informal sanctions could achieve similar results;

* the use of Supervision with Residence;

* the recording of a conviction and transfer to the District or High Court: the frequency with which this occurs in relation to the seriousness of the offending and the extent to which there is evidence that alternative options have been considered; and

* the use of penal custody. …

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