Comment

Boot camps won’t sell politics to young people

How can we make politics appeal to young people? Not through National's old-school boot camp policy, writes Max Harris

Six years ago, a few of us involved with JustSpeak – a criminal justice group led by and for young people, speaking up for a more just Aotearoa – organised a community forum on boot camps for young offenders. The people who came to the forum overwhelmingly opposed boot camps, and we wrote a report after the forum noting the lack of evidence supporting the effectiveness of boot camps as youth justice tools.

So I felt a sense of déjà vu – and a deep disappointment – when I heard on Sunday that boot camps formed a key part of the National Party’s Youth Justice Policy. 

The policy creates a new category, ‘Young Serious Offender’, for a young person who commits a serious offence, scores highly on a screening tool, and has offended after being in a youth justice or adult custodial facility. The policy largely removes bail for people in this category, ends Family Group Conferences for ‘YSOs’, gives more powers for police to detain, and requires that guardians for these people on release have been conviction-free for 10 years. The boot camps come in for ‘Young Serious Offenders’ who offend again: judges can order a year at an academy run by the Ministry of Defence. And make no mistake, these are boot camps: military-run camps for young offenders. Tacked on to the policy is an announcement that parents of children under the age of 14, “who are out walking the streets or without adult supervision”, will be fined $200. And, almost as an after-thought, the same policy promises a $30 million contestable fund for community groups working to reduce offending.

It’s likely that giving police and judges more discretion over ‘Young Serious Offenders’ will be used to disadvantage Māori and Pasifika young people, because of the way that institutional racism feeds into discretion throughout our justice system.

The National Party’s policy document has clearly been rushed and is full of uncertainty. Giving the Police Commissioner the power to deem someone a ‘Young Serious Offender’, and to create new detention powers, is highly unusual, and suggests the policy wasn’t carefully vetted by anyone with legal experience. And it’s not clear whether the “one year at a defence-lead [sic] Junior Training Academy, based at Waioru [sic]” is a replacement of, or an add-on to, an adult court sentence.

More worryingly, there’s little evidence of a problem that needs to be addressed. Young people who commit serious offences are already referred to the adult court system. Ministry of Justice statistics show that the number of young people charged in court has decreased for all gender, age, and ethnic groups for the past five years. New Zealand’s Family Group Conference system is lauded overseas, but is abandoned in this policy for Young Serious Offenders.

Further, this policy creates new problems. It’s likely that giving police and judges more discretion over ‘Young Serious Offenders’ will be used to disadvantage Māori and Pasifika young people, because of the way that institutional racism feeds into discretion throughout our justice system. Māori already make up 62 percent of young people in youth justice custodial facilities – Māori are more over-represented in these facilities than in adult prisons. 

Requiring that ‘Young Serious Offenders’ have a guardian that has been conviction-free for 10 years may well lead to some young people being torn away from families. 

The military will have to run camps for young people with complex needs, when we know that the best way to address these needs is to provide psychological, vocational, and cultural support.

And the whole policy places more burdens on individuals in our already over-worked and under-resourced justice system. On top of the fuzzy discretion for judges that I’ve already mentioned, police will be given the unenviable task of trying to decide how and when to fine parents of children under 14 “who are out walking the streets”. (Will police have to ask for ID? Will parents be fined if they and their children are sleeping in cars?) The military will have to run camps for young people with complex needs, when we know that the best way to address these needs is to provide psychological, vocational, and cultural support.

A better approach is to strengthen care and community for young people with behavioural challenges, rather than to resort to limp, unimaginative attempts at discipline. International evidence shows people in the youth justice system are four times more likely than others to commit suicide. If this Government were serious about tackling youth suicide, it would make other investments – say, in trauma-based cognitive behavioural therapy for those with behavioural changes – as opposed to doubling-down on detention. The young people at the core of this policy are also people who have been in youth justice facilities. Work needs to be done to improve these facilities, in line with a report on best practice by Justice Sector Science Advisor, Dr Ian Lambie.

In the lead-up to this election, there has been some discussion about engaging young people. There’s no silver bullet solution for political engagement. 

But policies like this which demonise young people as threats do nothing to suggest that politicians are serious about listening to younger members of our community. And old-school policy ideas like boot camps are not a part of the new kind of politics that so many young people are hungry for. 

What will draw at least some young people back to politics are good ideas (backed by evidence), based on values – values like care, community, and creativity. There’s little sign of those values on display in the National Party’s Youth Justice Policy. 

We, including young people, can all expect something better than this.

Max Harris is the author of The New Zealand Project and a member of RockEnrol, a youth-led group seeking to unleash the political power of young people.

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