Youth crime statistics are falling, and Youth Court Judge Andrew Becroft sees the connection between low crime rates and programmes such as Positive Behaviour for Learning that keep students in school.
If there’s one thing guaranteed to make headlines, it’s youth crime. It seems that every time a teenager commits a serious offence, the media feels bound to decry the inexorable descent of society into a Clockwork Orange-style nightmare, leaving the reader with the impression that our young people are on the verge of dragging civilisation into anarchy. Inevitably, catch phrases like ‘zero tolerance’, ‘call for tougher penalties’, ‘youth crime wave’ and expressions of disgust at the limp-wristed liberalisation of our justice system are the populist reaction.
Many would therefore have been understandably confused when statistics emerged recently showing that youth crime rates have been relatively stable over the last 10 years and have nose-dived to all-time lows over the last five. In September of last year, the Government announced that it was able to reset its Better Public Services target of a five per cent reduction in youth crime because it had been met and exceeded. The New Zealand Herald reported at the time that between June 2011 and June 2013, youth crime dropped by 19 per cent. Statistics New Zealand numbers show that conviction rates in the Youth Court are at their lowest level since records began.
His Honour Andrew J. Becroft, Principal Youth Court Judge of New Zealand and noted advocate of youth issues, has witnessed this decline from the most relevant vantage. He has held the post since 2001, and he is enthusiastic in his praise of New Zealand schools in their role as the ‘front line’ in the prevention of serious youth crime.
He says that there is room for “cautious optimism” but that there are areas of concern that we need to remain mindful of.
“It’s fair to say that the popular misunderstanding is that youth crime is on the rise, and in the view of some, is out of control. Actually, we are at historic all-time lows, in terms of overall apprehension of young people by the police. There’s never been less offence apprehensions than there has been in 2012 and 2013. So you could say that we’re seeing all-time low statistics, and that gives us a great opportunity to do better. But there are some worrying disproportionalities that we need to address now.
“A couple of things need to be mentioned in particular: serious and violent crime among youth is coming down, but not at the same rate as offences overall, so what might be called the ‘tough end’ is still a challenge. Secondly, while apprehension rates for Māori are coming down, they’re not coming down as fast as for non-Māori, so the disproportionality between Māori and non-Māori is in fact increasing, and that’s concerning. Thirdly the rate of offending for females is coming down, but not as fast as the overall rate, especially for female violent offending.”
Another statistic that would seem to go against media coverage on the topic is the declining proportion of youth crime to overall crime. Judge Becroft relates that for the first decade of his career, it was a given that youth offending made up 22–23 per cent of New Zealand’s crime statistics. Very suddenly, over the last several years, it has dropped to around 15 per cent.
Schools lead the way
In discussing the factors behind the decline, Judge Becroft is reluctant to reduce the conversation to a self-congratulatory ‘magic bullet’ – for the very simple reason that there isn’t one.
But one of the key drivers, he says, is the increased commitment he has seen in recent times from schools and the effort that now goes into keeping troubled students within the school community. A big part of this is a re-framing of the historically more militant reaction to youth crime in schools and the introduction of measures like Positive Behaviour for Learning, he says.
“Over the last 10 years there’s been something of a sea change in this area; whereas once it was probably the case that schools were competing against each other to demonstrate to the community who was the toughest, and ‘zero tolerance’ really meant exactly that.
“Schools have led the way in realising that a problem excluded is simply a problem transferred. Schools are working really hard to keep kids at school. I know for example that in Otago there’s a collective of secondary schools where if there has to be an exclusion, another school will take the child straight away. In Wellington, there’s a group of school principals who phone each other and say ‘this student has to be excluded, can you take them?’”
Judge Becroft says schools have realised in recent times that they are one of a few crucial institutions on which our society is built, and that in effect schools are society. Therefore barring troubled students from school achieves nothing because they are still out there in the community, with even less support.
“This is one of the key reasons for the downturn because in my opinion if a kid is in school, it’s just about a cast-iron guarantee that they won’t commit serious offences. Just about, anyway!”
While he is effusive about this more empathetic and nuanced approach, Judge Becroft points out that there will always be those young people who need to be removed from school, and in the most extreme cases, from society by way of prison. Drug dealers and the seriously violent are the most visible examples. This forms one of the challenges still in front of youth justice in New Zealand: what do we do with these most problematic cases?
“There’s not the same emphasis these days on removing problem behaviour, with the justification being that we’re protecting the rest of the school population. I’ve met with a lot of schools, and I see this approach more and more.
“The traditional attitude, very much in vogue last century and up to the turn of the century, was what has been called ‘segregation and aggregation’: segregate the worst behaving young people, then aggregate them together. Which is seldom, we now know, a recipe for lasting change and rehabilitation.
“To me, aggregating problem behaviour simply reinforces a label that young people can too easily come to live up to. This makes things very difficult for those involved with young people in alternative education programmes.”
Judge Becroft is unstinting also in his praise of other involved organisations. He says that the range of community-based options available as an alternative to the criminal justice system is much improved, and the police have
re-doubled their efforts in only bringing charges against young people where there is no other option or where public safety demands it. Child Youth and Family also comes in for praise from Judge Becroft in their efforts to prioritise youth justice.
A recurring backstory
Judge Becroft believes that one of the keys to understanding youth justice, and therefore, shedding light on the most appropriate solutions, is to realise that so many young people who come before his bench have been victimised far more than they have created victims. It is sadly true that in New Zealand, so many youth offenders come from a strikingly similar background. It’s now verging on cliché, but that doesn’t make it any less true: transient families, violence in the home, and drug and alcohol abuse are all a potent combination that continues to provide grist to the prison system mill.
“Most of those charged with a serious crime that we see in youth court come from a remarkably similar background. I think that we’ve now got pockets of a third generation ‘underclass’ in New Zealand. By this I mean we have pockets of families who have three generations of people who are unemployed, in and out of prison, and are struggling financially. These pockets of third generation disadvantage are where the youth court faces its toughest work. So many of the kids we see coming before the youth court come from these areas.
“They’re kids who’ve often experienced violence in the home at an early age; they’re from families where there has often been significant drug and alcohol abuse. I would go so far as to say that most of the kids we see in youth court started with cannabis at 12 and 13, often from wider family members. They’re binge drinking by 13 or 14. This is, of course, at the serious end of the youth court.
“Sadly, 54 per cent of those before the youth court are also Māori. Of course, Māori are negatively represented in so many statistics. So put that all together and we’ve got some serious problems.”
Mental illness plays a significant part also, says Judge Becroft. The cause and effect relationship between dysfunctional lives and mental disorder is murky, but a huge proportion of the young people before his court have exhibited, whether diagnosed or not, the hallmarks of disorders such as ‘conduct disorder’ (recognised by the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), ADHD, and Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, as well as learning disabilities and communication disorders. The blanket term is ‘damaged’ says Judge Becroft, and we need to remain mindful of this when reacting with zealous anger to youth crime.
“The short answer is this: only about 3,500 kids come before the youth court every year, so it’s a small group. About half that number are seriously damaged and abused.
“This is not to say that the youth court is a bleeding heart sort of a thing where young people aren’t held to account, because they are, and it’s not widely understood in the community that 14- and 15-year-olds do get sent to prison – one recently for seven years. There is a level of offending that can only result in removal from society. But we cannot let that characterise our approach. Wherever possible, we are trying to provide a way, in the context of the family and the community, to divert kids from a life of adult crime. We try really hard to do that.
“I wonder also whether the community understands that we do actually have a pretty good success rate with young people who come before the youth court. There’s about a 52 per cent success rate. About 35 per cent don’t offend again and about 18 or 19 per cent whose offending tails off quite quickly.
“People might say ‘well, what kind of institution are you running when 48 per cent reoffend?’, but people need to remember that we only deal with the most serious 20 per cent of offenders, so they’re a really tough group to begin with. There’s no country in the world that I’m aware of that does better – or even comes close to doing better.
“These are tough, tough kids, and there are no easy solutions. I’ve said many times, ‘I can’t give you a pill and a glass of water and tell you that you’ll be all right in five days.’ We’re dealing with a constellation of deficits in their upbringing that take years to undo. People should understand that youth court is rarely about reckless teenage stupidity. Sometimes it is, but rarely.
“One important statistic that makes the point: of those kids that come before the youth court, 75 per cent (3 in 4) are already on CYF’s books due to abuse, care, and neglect issues. Very, very few of the young people in youth court just burst onto the scene from out of nowhere. They’re always known to CYF and similar services.”
The gold standard
The question then poses itself: what do we do with these tragically damaged young people? How do we unwind and unravel the deficits that have led them to isolate themselves, through their actions, from society?
It’s an ongoing debate, and our understanding and approach continues to evolve, says Judge Becroft. He talks about the ‘gold standard’ of three intervention styles, all with impenetrable names that are commonly reduced to acronyms: multi-systemic family therapy, functional family therapy, and multi-dimensional therapeutic foster care. All these have in common the fact that they work closely with families and all the systems that make up a young person’s life to rebuild families and rebuild damaged kids over a period of years.
The concept of restorative justice in schools is also a key factor, says Judge Becroft, in the downturn in youth crime.
“It’s just such a positive development. It’s also often misunderstood. I think it’s seen by some as antithetical to punishment or accountability. Some see it as a do-gooder ‘slap over the wrist with a wet bus ticket’ kind of a thing.
“So we need to unpack what is meant by restorative justice. We need to ensure that an offender is held to account, that there are consequences, but that there are also measures in place to make sure that it doesn’t happen again, in the context of the offender and the victim facing up to each other and their respective families. When it’s done properly, by schools or within family group conferences for example, restorative justice has in it the seeds of genius. The move toward restorative practice is extremely positive. But the polarity of the argument concerns me – the way some people see the issue as restorative justice at one end and punishment at the other.”
Should we see restorative justice instead as being a far more real form of accountability? Judge Becroft thinks so. If we simply kick a young person out of school, doesn’t that excuse them from facing the impact of their actions? To have to explain to a victim why they perpetrated the harm and damage must surely compel the offender to think deeply about their actions.
“The experience of those schools who are doing it well is incredibly positive, and restorative justice and programmes like Positive Behaviour for Learning are probably one of the major reasons that we’re seeing this dramatic downturn [in crime]. It ought to be the ultimate form of accountability, and of course, it’s not mutually exclusive of more traditional punishment.”
Judge Becroft acknowledges the work that schools are doing in creating a better New Zealand and a better future for our most vulnerable young people.
“I would like to take the opportunity to say what a fantastic job schools are doing toward keeping kids in school, and helping them avoid a life that ends up in jail. It’s probably a bit glib or trite to say that schools are our frontline crime fighters, and that can be misunderstood, but they are if you subscribe to the hypothesis that a kid kept at school is a kid less likely to offend.
“There’s no magic bullet, but the next best thing we have is to keep young people at school rather than isolate them from their peer group. It’s an impossible goal, but one we should still be aiming at. The better we do in this respect, the more youth crime will come down. It’s just about as simple as that.”
By Jaylan Boyle
PB4L Restorative Practice Model – Background Information
Positive Behaviour for Learning (PB4L) programmes and initiatives help parents, teachers and schools address problem behaviour, improve children’s wellbeing and increase educational achievement.
About PB4L Restorative Practice
The Ministry of Education started working with 23 secondary schools in 2013 to trial a best practice model of Restorative Practice. This model focuses on building, maintaining and restoring positive and respectful relationships within the school community.
The project team is working with a reference group that have either been part of the first trial phase, have an active interest in Restorative Practice or represent the education sector.
The PB4L Restorative Practice model consists of three elements:
- Restorative Essentials – for all teaching and support staff to build relationship skills
- Restorative Circles – for teaching staff to facilitate group conversations
- Restorative Conferencing – for selected staff to facilitate conferences to resolve serious incidents.
Based on feedback from trial schools, the model will be refined and made available to more secondary schools from Term 3 2014.
By 2017, we aim to make PB4L Restorative Practice available to at least 200 secondary schools.
RESTORATIVE PRACTICE – THE GLOBAL CONCEPT
Restorative Practice around the world reflects elements of Māori and other indigenous approaches to repairing relationships and maintaining group harmony. In the New Zealand education context, Restorative Practice builds on the Restorative Justice approach used within the Justice system. It uses informal and formal processes that encourage positive daily interactions, strengthen relationships and foster a positive sense of community to prevent conflict.
Delegates at the Taumata Whanonga behaviour summit in 2009 requested that a best practice model of Restorative Practice be developed as part of PB4L.
Schools that would like to register interest in PB4L Restorative Practice can email email@example.com with RESTORATIVE PRACTICE in the subject line.
For quotes or further information please contact: Lisa Crombie, Senior Communications Advisor, PB4L; Lisa.firstname.lastname@example.org; DDI 463 7550.