National’s youth offending policy, which it unveiled yesterday, appears to have ignored a considerable weight of evidence — some of it produced by one of its own former advisors and some by one of its own Ministers.
At the centre of the plan announced by Leader Christopher Luxon is a return to the last National Government’s youth offender boot camps.
Yesterday Luxon said a National Government would create Young Offender Military Academies where 15-17-year-old serious offenders would be sent for up to 12 months.
“The Academies will provide discipline, mentoring and intensive rehabilitation to make a decisive intervention in these young offenders’ lives,” Luxon’s statement announcing the policy said.
“The Academies will be delivered in partnership with the Defence Force, alongside other providers.”
The moves announced yesterday also included moves to “back the police” and to target what it proposed would be a new “Young Serious Offender” category.
The policy did not acknowledge a lengthy report published just after National left office by Sir Peter Gluckman, who John Key appointed as the first Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister.
The report was aprt of a series commissioned by the English government.
Gluckman specifically opposed boot camps.
“Boot camps do not work, and ‘scared straight’ programmes have been shown to increase crime,” he said.
“Young offenders can find the ‘thrill’, or emotional ‘high’ of violent offending, and the social rewards (such as admiration from their peers), more important to them than concerns about being caught or facing social disapproval.
“Youth need alternative, prosocial ways to achieve engagement and social approval.”
Gluckman argued that what was needed was effective early intervention on what he called “the pathway to prison”.
“The effects of abuse, neglect and maltreatment on children’s development and behaviour can be successfully addressed at home, at school, in the community and in targeted mental health and other services, for a fraction of the cost of imprisonment”, he said.
He also called for complementary programmes linking up with iwi groups and Pasifika.
“These can be highly political issues that create sensitivities in different sectors of the community as a result of various strongly held views about the use of punishment; beliefs about community protection and prevention; individual vs. shared responsibility for social ills; and the roles of poverty, inequality, and childhood vulnerability,” he said.
“Nonetheless, we need to think about what sort of New Zealand we want to create for future generations.
“Is it one with a rising prison population, at ever higher costs, without corresponding community or offender benefits?
“ Is it one with chronic Māori over-representation in the criminal justice system? Is it one where children are increasingly both victims and offenders?
“The evidence says it does not have to be so, and it will require strong and courageous leadership to commit to and implement a change programme that produces sustained positive change across the justice system.”
His views were echoed last night by National’s original architect of its boot camps when it was in opposition before the 2008 election, Chester Borrows.
He was the party’s youth offending spokesperson and then Associate Justice Minister and worked with social development spokesperson Anne Tolley on the policy which brought about the camps.
But Borrows always saw them as a part of a broader programme.
“Evidence suggests National needs to talk about a whole of government approach to youth offending, like education and health and welfare and the economy and those sorts of things,” he told POLITIK.
He said it was difficult to get a really good view of the success of the military activity camps because the worst offenders were sent there.
“Some of them went on to do some pretty horrific stuff pretty quickly,” he said.
“But gradually, we found that they offended at a less serious rate and committed less serious crimes at a less frequent rate.
“So they certainly had some effect.”
But there are questions about whether the military has a role in the criminal justice system.
Ex-soldier and defence commentator Simon Ewing-Jarvie wrote on his blog yesterday: “What has been concerning is the lack of commentary on the effect on the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) and, in particular, the NZ Army.
“People join the Army to be soldiers – not jailers, social workers or guidance counsellors.
“It is conceded that, during the occasional prison officers’ strike, the forces have taken over the keys to the nation’s jails, but this is in keeping with their ‘aid to the civil power’ role.
“It is a far cry from what is now being proposed.
“The debilitating effect on NZDF personnel of guarding MIQ during Covid responses should be all the warning the government needs not to go here.”
The impression that the camps were excessively military was not helped by then-Prime Minister John Key.
“Yes, they’ll involve some marching exercises. Yes, they’ll involve military facilities. I personally support that,” he said when the camps were unveiled in 2009.
But Borrows said they weren’t like that; instead, they were as much about teaching things like self-esteem, and that point was missed at the time.
He said the youth offending policy he developed with Tolley included things like increasing the age at which offenders would go through the youth justice system to 17 and the introduction of intensive supervision for youth offenders after they had served their sentences.
“National’s got a really good story to tell on that stuff, and it doesn’t bother because there are no votes on it, because it’s doing the rhetoric of opposition, which I would have thought it would have grown out of, but it’s got people there who really just want to push that button and don’t want to investigate it any further,” he said.
Though the frequency and seriousness of youth crime from a small number of offenders has obviously increased, particularly in Auckland, since Covid struck in 2020, the number of offenders before the Youth Court has dropped from 10827 in 2012-13 to 6900 last year.
Police statistics show that all reported crime has almost doubled since 2014 but that defenders are most likely to be in the 20 – 30 age demographic.
But National yesterday appears to have been after a quick headline rather than a long-term solution.