Preventing youth offending – Expert reaction

Early intervention can help keep prison numbers down and get children off the prison pipeline, according to a new report from the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor.

In the second report in a series about New Zealand’s prison population, Science Advisor to the Justice sector Assoc Prof Ian Lambie explores youth offending in New Zealand and methods to prevent unnecessary imprisonment.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the report. Please feel free to use these comments in your reporting.

Associate Professor Joe Boden, Dept of Psychological Medicine, University of Otago, Christchurch comments:

“The most important finding in this report is that early identification and intervention is absolutely key, and is incredibly cost effective. The money spent and the resources invested into helping at-risk families and children who have early evidence of behavioural problems – these things are expensive to deal with and labour and time intensive, but they cost a lot less than what happens when someone ends up as a career criminal.

“Things like boot camps are basically just criminal academies. The offenders who were interviewed said that themselves – putting young offenders together in groups allows them to share ideas about offending.

“The transformation they describe in the report is going to take a long time, because we are talking about a change that will take a generation. If we say we want to start intervening with 3, 4, or 5-year-olds, which the report does state, then we are really talking about savings that are not going to reach fruition for 10, 15, 20 years.

“When we implement these things we have to evaluate them along the way to make sure they’re working in the short term, and that will give us much more confidence about carrying on through the long term.

“The report notes the system is biased against Māori and that’s one thing that needs to be tackled very urgently.

“One thing that could change the system in some way is the possibility of decriminalising drugs like cannabis, or perhaps decriminalising drugs other than cannabis. One of the common pathways into the justice system for young people is being involved with drugs, particularly for young Māori and young Māori males. I think criminalising young drug users really contributes to the problem; it does not help them stop using drugs, and it criminalises them.

“This youth offending is a mental health problem. It’s a public health problem at heart. There needs to be a realisation or understanding that a lot of social ills stem from behavioural problems. Any changes would need to be coordinated with any changes to the mental health system, because the two go hand-in-hand.

“It’s hard to see a system that will work seamlessly but we’re going to have to develop a vision on how we’re going to do this.

“The report makes interesting recommendations that kids involved in youth justice have access to substance abuse and mental health treatment, and to make sure that is rolled out as a natural consequence of coming into contact with that system.”

Conflict of interest statement: I am the Deputy Director of the Christchurch Health and Development Study, which has been mentioned (positively) in the report. I have also been peripherally involved in the Conduct Problems Working Group (assisting Professor David Fergusson), and with Early Start, a home visitation programme for at-risk families.

Dr Sarah Monod de Froideville, Lecturer, Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington comments:

“Developmental crime prevention is one of two strands under the ‘social crime prevention’ banner (the other strand is community crime prevention).

“In its ideal form developmental crime prevention aims to prevent the development of criminal behaviour in a person by addressing social problems such as poverty and marginalisation and therefore involves addressing social and material inequalities.

“Governments tend to shy away from it as it is expensive and the pay-off can’t be seen until some time in the future. It’s also seen as a lefty, ‘soft on crime’ approach. This report advocates a version of the developmental crime prevention approach that targets resources to those thought to be ‘at risk’ of offending.

“This is not the ideal form described above.

“Researchers have found that risk factors don’t predict crime (McDonald, 2006; Kemshall et al., 2009). Preventative policies focused on risk factors can therefore cost more money, not less, by directing resources to young people who don’t require them. They also stigmatise the young people they target (Muncie, 2015). And, they may even precipitate offending if these young people internalise the label of ‘potential criminal’.

“This version of developmental crime prevention also threatens the rights and protections that our youth justice system currently holds to. New Zealand’s youth justice system’s focus on diversion, for example, recognises that young people aren’t terribly risk savvy and may get into trouble at this transitional period in their lives.

“Funnelling them through the formal justice system is seen to be an extreme response to behaviours they are likely to mature out of, and one that is a sure fire way to make sure that they offend again.

“This developmental crime prevention approach will intervene with young people identified to have ‘risk factors’ for criminal behaviour later on in life. It will be the responsibility of the young people who are targeted for these interventions to make sure the intervention pays off. If they fail, and they offend, they will be seen as criminal and as a bad investment.”

No conflicts of interest.

Emeritus Professor Tony Taylor, School of Psychology, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“This report is essentially detailed, evidence-based research that can now be used to guide policy. In the past, matters related to delinquency, crime, disorder, aggression, drug-taking, family violence and all the rest of it have been used at election times to create fear.

“We’ve known for years boot camps have been absolutely no good and made those on the criminal track more determined.

“This report sets the foundations at long last for a sensible policy of dealing with all sorts of people who have had very difficult roads to hoe, mostly from their families or backgrounds of various kinds and gives them a chance to make the best of themselves. It feeds in the best of physical and psychiatric evidence on brain development. This is well-expressed and should advise all those who want to put millions into building bastions of concrete.

“The most useful recommendations are taking this developmental line with the focus on family, relationships, reducing poverty, increasing employment and skills training, and giving teachers support for dealing with troublesome children.”

No conflicts of interest declared.

Professor Greg Newbold, criminologist, Dept of Sociology, University of Canterbury, comments:

“A developmental crime model, which aims at taking measures to block or divert the childhood pathways that lead to adult criminality, is right on the money, in my view. I’ve been calling for such an approach (fence at the top of the cliff, rather than ambulance at the bottom) for years. The big question, however, is how to implement it, and how to sell a long term solution like this to elected governments which generally only think in 3-year cycles.

“This is why they can’t even get rid of a law as ridiculous and ineffective as Three Strikes.”

No conflicts of interest.