New Zealand has developed innovative methods for handling juvenile offenders. Juvenile justice in New Zealand is a collaborative effort between youths, their families, victims, the community, and the government. It is based on restorative justice principles.
Prior to the 1960s, New Zealand held juveniles as young as seven years old culpable for their criminal acts. The Crimes Act of 1961 raised the age of criminal responsibility to 10. A decade later, the Children and Young Persons Act of 1974 further categorized degrees of youth. The Act specified a “child” as someone under age 14. The only offenses that the youth justice system can charge a child with are murder and manslaughter. A “young person” is an individual between the age of 14 and 16 who is unmarried. Young persons are culpable for all criminal offenses. Adult Courts handle criminal offenders ages 17 and older (Becroft 2003).
The New Zealand youth justice system seeks to hold offenders accountable and offer rehabilitation to improve their reintegration. Youth justice officials recognize that youth imprisonment, especially in large numbers, is ineffective, damaging, and does not reduce recidivism. The current system is geared toward decarceration and placement in the least restrictive alternative. To provide more effective resources for rehabilitation, officials gradually have shifted resources from state agencies to private sector organizations that can offer faster and more in-depth services (Becroft 2003).
Youth Courts have several options for handling juvenile offenders. The strictest options are transfer to adult court and residential confinement. Juveniles can only remain in a residential facility for three months and after their release, a social worker supervises them for six months. Other Youth Court options include community supervision with activity requirements, community service, fines, restitution, admonition (reprimand), and discharge from proceedings (Morris and Maxwell 1997).
New Zealand passed the Children, Young Persons and Their Families (CYPTF) Act in 1989 to promote the wellbeing of youths and their families (New Zealand Ministry of Social Development 2012). The legislation made youth arrests a last resort and required the least restrictive placement for youth offenders. Incarceration is prohibited unless a youth’s offense is indictable or the youth is likely to abscond, reoffend, or interfere with his or her case. The Act urged courts to keep youths in their community and allocated resources for rehabilitation programs. It also encouraged youth offenders, their families, victims, and communities to be involved in the rehabilitation process and to offer input into the consequences for offending (Becroft 2003).
The CYPTF Act of 1989 specified other legal and bureaucratic reforms for youth justice. It required every district to have a Youth Court to which the Governor-General must appoint a Principal Youth Court Judge. The legislation mandated that the chief executor appoint competent youth justice coordinators to explore options for dealing with young offenders by means other than criminal proceedings. It suggested that stakeholders convene and report on Family Group Conferencing, an approach in which everyone affected by the offense contributes to a plan for managing the youth (New Zealand Ministry of Social Development 2012).
The Child Youth and Family Services (CYFS) department is responsible for overseeing the youth justice components of the Act. However, the CYFS lacks funding and there is no system of financial oversight so the CYFS has no accountability for spending. The CYFS relies on Youth Justice social workers to assist in the rehabilitation of youth offenders, but a majority of social workers are unqualified, which degrades the quality of rehabilitation services (Becroft 2003).
Police are the gatekeepers of the youth justice system in New Zealand. The CYPTF Act calls for police to use formal cautions in lieu of court referrals whenever possible. A formal caution occurs in a police station when a senior officer discusses the offense with the youth and his or her family or guardian and gives a written notice detailing the offense. As of 2003, 84 percent of juvenile cases were handled outside of court and 76 percent were dealt with through warnings and diversionary programs (Watt 2003). Police issued formal warnings in 44 percent of instances involving a youth offense and alternative sanctions in 32 percent (Becroft 2003). Alternative sanctions include restitution, participation in educational programs, and written apologies. Police made arrests in about 12 percent of offenses involving youths (Becroft 2003).
The Act has changed New Zealand youth justice. Arrests of 14 to 16 year olds decreased from more than 8,000 in 1987 to less than 2,000 in 1990. However, after the initial impact of the Act, the number of youth arrests increased steadily between 1990 and 2001, when it approached 3,000 (Maxwell, Robertson and Kingi 2002). The caseload of Youth Courts decreased from 11,327 cases in 1987 to 2,249 in 1990, a decline of more than 80 percent. Similar to the arrest rebound, the number of court cases gradually increased through the 1990s and reached 4,046 cases in 2001 (Maxwell, Robertson and Kingi 2002). Despite the increase in Youth Court cases, the number of court orders (sentences entailing some degree of formal supervision) and transfers to adult court decreased during this time. Judges rendered a court order in 82 percent of cases in 1987 and only 39 percent of cases in 2001. There were 1,318 Youth Court convictions transferred to a higher court in 1987 and only to 234 transfers in 2001 (Maxwell, Robertson and Kingi 2002).
The CYPTF Act had a consierable impact on youth custody. Custodial sentences decreased more than 50 percent in the decade following the Act. In 1987, Youth Courts sentenced 295 juveniles to custody and in 2001 there were only 73 custodial sentences (Maxwell, Robertson and Kingi 2002). Custodial sentences include prison and corrective training (similar to boot camp). In 2000, Youth Courts ordered custody for only 3.5 percent of youth offenders, which suggests Youth Courts’ preference for community-based sentences.
The reduction in custodial placements has allowed New Zealand to downside its youth facilities. The CYFS maintained over 1,000 youth beds in secure facilities in the 1980s. Since the passage of the CYPTF Act, the Department maintains only 75 beds (Becroft 2003). The shortage of youth beds became problematic. In 2002, there were not enough beds to meet the demand for juveniles sentenced to custody so police cells were used as short-term options to house the overflow of juveniles. Within a few years, more juveniles were held in police cells than in secure facilities. To meet the demand for secure beds, the CYFS proposed building at least three new residential youth facilities.
Another innovation of the CYPTF Act was the introduction of Family Group Conferencing (FGC) in place of court hearings. FGC is a meeting between the youth offender, the offender’s family, the victim(s), and a youth coordinator to decide the best course of action for the youth. This is a three-stage process that includes information sharing, private family deliberation, and reaching of an agreement (Connolly 1994). Youth Courts accept about 95 percent of FGC plans (Becroft 2003). While Youth Courts use diversions for low-level offenders, police and Youth Courts often recommend that persistent and serious juvenile offenders participate in FGC.
Studies have explored the nature and impact of FGC. An evaluation of FGC outcomes in 1998 found that 16 percent of the outcomes were minor (warning, curfew), 69 percent were moderate (community service, restitution), and 15 percent were severe (supervision, confinement) (Maxwell, Robertson and Kingi 2002). Another study found that 26 percent of those who participated in FGC were reconvicted within a year following the conference. This is no worse than what would be expected from juveniles released from residential confinement, though the researchers did not use a comparative sample. Juveniles who did not apologize to their victim in the FGC were three times more likely to be reconvicted than those who did apologize (Morris and Maxwell 1997).
FGC has become a prevalent alternative to Youth Court. Since the 1989 Act, FGC has replaced court hearings in three-fourths of cases involving youth offenders (Morris and Maxwell 1997). Funding is key issue that will affect the future of FGC. Between 1991 and 1994, the budget for youth justice decreased from $34.5 million to $27.5 million (Morris and Maxwell 1997). FGC will certainly suffer from the budget reduction.
The youth justice system stands to gain considerably from reductions in court appearances and custodial placements. Reducing the number of juveniles in the youth justice system could generate significant financial savings for New Zealand. The country could use the savings to to handle more referrals through Family Group Conferencing.