New Zealand is being labelled an international embarrassment for continuing to put 17-year-olds on trial as adults.
Andrew Becroft said New Zealand should have raised the age at which offenders were treated as adults a long time ago. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King
In an open letter to Prime Minister John Key, 33 groups dealing with young people called for the youth court age to be raised to 18.
Children’s Commissioner and former principal youth court judge Andrew Becroft said New Zealand, as a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, should have raised the age at which offenders were treated as adults a long time ago.
Apart from a few US states, New Zealand stood alone in not having done so and was an embarrassment, he said.
“We are just entirely out of step and we just can’t go on simply ignoring it year after year – it’s just unacceptable and it represents really an enduring stain on our otherwise good justice record.
“It’s got to be fixed, it’s got to be addressed and it’s got to be done now.”
It was a popular misconception that by raising the age to 18 young people would suddenly be let off with more serious crimes, he said.
“The Youth Court has still open to it the very serious sentences where young people can be convicted and transferred to the district court for sentence.
Brainwave Trust, an organisation that looks at brain development in children and young people, was also a signatory.Spokesperson Sue Wright said there was now a scientific basis on which to say 17-year-olds should not be treated as adults by the justice system.
“In these mid-teen years which is about 15, 16, 17, adolescents’ brains are at the peak of a new phase of development with a pre-frontal cortex, a part of the front of the brain that does all of the consequence thinking and planning thinking, still in construction.”
Compelling teenagers to engage in risky behaviour was all part of nature’s plan, she said.
“Literally in the brain you have chemicals that drive you to take risks because otherwise we’d never leave home.
“It’s believed this is a biological change in the brain to encourage us to leave the environment in which we’ve grown up and go out and explore in the world.”
A proposal to raise the age to 18 went to Cabinet recently but no decision has been made.
A government delegation will front up to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child in Geneva on Friday to explain New Zealand’s position as part of a five-yearly review of countries and their level of compliance. Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft will address the committee on Thursday.
I have no problem that these younger offenders might get incarcerated and treated differently because of their relative youth and “developing brains”.
The fact is, by the time a 17 year old gets to face prison time, they have done something seriously, seriously wrong! Almost all of the time it is the culmination of numerous prior run-ins with the law.
To give them an “out” by saying their brain isn’t fully developed is to shift responsibility, like saying he was on drugs, or drunk, or very very tired.
By all means, have a different way of incarceration and rehabilitation for these precious little scrotes. I get the fact that they shouldn’t go in with hardened gangs (although for many it will be a family reunion). But to make them less responsible for their actions is one of the most fundamental mistakes we can make.
Good parents spend a decade and a bit of their lives teaching their children that actions have consequences, and then you get some wet liberals saying that, no, no… not really, Johnny can’t be held totally responsible until he turns 18. As if some magical switch gets thrown.
Adult crimes require adult consequences. Nobody will lock up Taylor for using crayon on a freshly painted wall. No matter how much the parents want it.