Launch of the Child Offenders Manual

  • Tony Ryall

Judge Carruthers, Judge Boshier, distinguished guests, ladies and gentleman.

I was delighted to accept your invitation to be here today to help launch the Child Offenders Manual.

I am sure that the Manual will be of great assistance to anyone doing the difficult but vitally important job of working with child offenders.

It is an unfortunate sign of our times that we need a manual to deal with offenders between the ages of 10 and 13 years old.

The good news is that at this age we still have a real chance of turning these kids around.

Later on I want to talk a more about the Government's plan to deal with repeat youth offending.

You know we have already achieved a great deal in New Zealand.

While many countries are struggling with rising crime rates, New Zealand is amongst a select few where overall crime is falling.

Latest statistics show an overall drop in the crime rate of just over three percent between 1997 and 1998.

While modest, it comes on top of a two percent drop the previous year.

The Police, Social Services, the Courts and, perhaps most especially, our communities, can feel justifiably proud of this achievement.

We can and will do more to reduce crime.

We will support community crime prevention initiatives.

We will have an all time record 7000 sworn Police out on the streets by the middle of next year.

This is 900 extra on 1990, and is in addition to the traffic merger staff.

And, we will continue to toughen sentences for the worst violent offenders who threaten our communities.

These things are important.

New Zealanders have demanded that we take such actions.

I make no apology for delivering them.

But, we must not lose sight of the future.

We must not focus so completely on the crime and criminals at hand, that we neglect trying to save young vulnerable New Zealanders from becoming the hardened criminals of the future.

I am certain that our best long-term weapon against crime is early intervention.

It's best for those who consequently won ?t grow up to be criminals.

It's best for those who consequently won't become their victims.

And, I am determined that, through early intervention, we can turn young offenders off the path that leads to adult crime.

But, it's not easy.

Many of these children have had their childhood stolen from them by parental neglect, family violence, drugs and alcohol.

They are in a hurry to grow up.

They want to do what adults do.

But, they have not yet learned the rules of our society.

Nor have they learned that their behaviour has consequences - for them and their victims.

Many of these children are the serious offenders of the future.

It is our responsibility to save them from a downward spiral of offending while we still have the chance.

If we do not accept this responsibility the crimes they commit will almost certainly become more serious as they get older.

Even these very young offenders must learn that their actions do have consequences.

Serious consequences.

In recent years we have learnt much about identifying those children most likely to go to recidivist youth and adult crime.

By intervening intensively as early as possible we can make a significant difference to these children's lives.

I do not want them adding to the problem of youth offending as they reach their teens.

And, the statistics on youth offending are of concern.

In 1990 21,600 14 to 16 year old were apprehended for non-traffic offences.

By 1997 that had increased 43 percent to 31,000.

Most disturbing was that, in the same age group, apprehensions for violent offending had increased by 113 percent from 1500 in 1990 to 3200 in 1997.

The statistics, quite rightly, concern middle New Zealanders.

They are demanding that their government ensures young offenders, who commit crimes, face consequences.

And, I agree with them.

The issues are complex.

Often these young people have endured years of serious neglect and abuse.

Some have drug, alcohol and psychological issues.

Many have urgent educational and social needs.

As we work with young offenders we must continue to address these needs.

And, in some cases we must be prepared to take tough action.

Youth offenders must learn discipline, respect and responsibility for their actions

For many it will be the first time anyone has taught them these fundamental values.

Young offenders need to know that there is a risk/reward ratio.

Our job is it make it clear and certain in young people's minds that the risks really do outweigh the rewards.

At the same time New Zealanders want to know that we are doing all we can to save young offenders from a life of crime.

This too is vital and must go hand-in-hand with other initiatives.

Repeat youth offending is one of my key priorities as Justice Minister.

To save a generation of children, we must send the message back to our homes, neighbourhoods and schools that if you break the law you will be held responsible for your actions.

Over the next few weeks I will be outlining the Government's plan to deal with repeat youth offending.

But, I have to say that the Government alone can not solve the problem of young people offending.

The burden of responsibility is shared between the Government, parents and, I believe, the media.

Parents have by far the greatest role to play.

But, the media too must take their share of responsibility.

Television, films, video games, and now the internet have sensationalised and glamorised violence.

The media is serving a diet of gratuitous violence committed without consequences.

It is little wonder our young people have become desensitised to violence.

We know that there are many things that contribute to a young person starting down such a destructive path.

Poor parental support and supervision, health problems, learning difficulties can all play significant roles.

So too can a child's environment at school, in the community and most significantly at home.

For people working with families and children under pressure, it can be a difficult and emotionally challenging job.

I am sure it can be frustrating and sometimes feel pretty thankless.

I want to say that to those people that all New Zealanders owe you a debt of gratitude.

I want to thank you publicly for you efforts.

That's why I was so pleased to launch something that will make your lives a little easier - the Child Offenders Manual.

It will also help us achieve a very important goal - more at risk children getting the help they need.

One of the great strengths of the Manual is that it has been written by and for people dealing with child offenders most often.

Judges and others working with child offenders have been aware that the management of this vulnerable group has been unsatisfactory.

That's not anyone's fault.

The legislation is complex and there are many organisations involved.

In addition to their Honours Judge Boshier and Judge Carruthers, contributions to the Manual have been made by legal practitioners, the Ministries of Health, Education, Youth Affairs, the Department for Courts, the Police, CYPFA, the Community Law Centre, and the Commissioner for Children.

That gives you some idea of how many agencies are involved in this area.

The Child Offenders Manual clarifies, for these agencies, just who is responsible, for what and when.

It provides guidance on the steps to be taken and the things to be considered when dealing with a child offender.

It untangles and simplifies procedures, and shows where responsibility lies at each stage.

And, it asks and answers some pretty fundamental questions like:

Who is a child offender? Who is responsible for dealing with and managing child offenders? And, can child offenders be arrested?

The answers to those questions by the way are: an offender between 10 and 13 years old; unequivocally the Police; and, yes, child offenders can be arrested.

Finally, I would like to add my thanks to all those people who have contributed to this publication.

I encourage anyone with a professional or private involvement in this vital area to make full use of the information it provides.