Youth Program Slashes Crime

By Harman, Alan | Law & Order, May 2000 | Go to article overview

Youth Program Slashes Crime


Harman, Alan, Law & Order


A program aimed at reducing youth offending has resulted in a dramatic reduction in crime and offered the potential to cut the cost of youth crime by millions of dollars.

The New Zealand Police Service and the Crime Prevention Unit (CPU), a sub-unit of the Department of the Prime Minister, has operated 14 Youth at Risk pilot programs since 1997. The programs involve the identification and targeting of children and families in need, with a particular emphasis on recidivist offenders or those who are at risk of becoming offenders.

The 339 young people in the program were responsible for about 1,500 offenses and incidents before the programs started. The figure dropped to 330-representing a decrease of 78 percent-after they joined the program, according to program evaluator Tessa Watson. The drop involved significant reductions in burglary, theft, vehicle offenses, willful damage, truancy and running away.

The program participants range in age from 8 to 18 (92 percent were between the ages of 11 and 17). Some 78 percent of involved youths were male (but gender was not part of the selection criteria).

The initial evaluation produced very encouraging results, according to Watson. `"There is no doubt the programs are making a difference," she said. "Offending has dropped, and this could save taxpayers millions of dollars in flow-on costs. But the biggest gains are the positive changes some of these young people are making to their lives, helped by the passion and commitment of the program staff."

The program, which targets youth who are at risk of entering, re-entering or wallowing in the criminal justice system, involves a coordinated effort across three areas: the family, school and the community. Some programs include a mentoring approach that matches adult volunteers with at-risk youth. Other programs are schoolbased but work with groups of children in and outside the school environment.

Watson cited one case of one-to-one mentoring: "The boy was referred to the program after being indefinitely suspended from school for violent behavior. He was socially isolated with no male role models. He had come to police attention at least twice and was involved in other offenses not known to police.

"The boy has now been successfully matched with a mentor for several months and the relationship continues to go well. The boy has not come to police attention since and is showing improvements in his self-esteem and general behavior. He is learning in all areas of his life."

The boy's mother says she has a happy son for the first time in ages, His mentor is an 82-year-old man who spends six hours with him each week.

The program in the Tauranga region, based at the Greerton police station, involved 18 children. Of these, 16 had committed offenses prior to joining the program (some admitted as many as 30 offenses). Since joining the program, only four of the children had re-offended.

An analysis of the crime statistics recorded at the Greerton station from 1994 to 1998 showed that after a trend of overall increases since 1994, there were some notable decreases in offenses between 1997 and 1998.

Overall juvenile crime fell 43 percent (a 74.4 percent drop for those 13 or younger, a 46.5 percent decrease for 14-year-olds and a 45.3 percent fall for 15-year-olds).

While Watson said he couldn't state categorically that these reductions in youth apprehensions were a result of the Youth at Risk program, one could assume that the program had been somewhat, if not largely, responsible for these marked reductions.

Final reports on the three-year pilot are due in October-when it's expected that recommendation will be made to continue and expand the program.

Before his departure, former commissioner Peter Doone said that the project, which broke new ground in New Zealand policing, would be continued.

"Our strategy for dealing with troubled young people is clearly making inroads," he said. …

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