Speech To Ohariu Belmont National Party

  • Tony Ryall

Good morning, what a pleasure it is to speak to you. The recent Youth Justice conference and a number of Government announcements regarding new initiatives in this area have thrown the spotlight on youth justice issues over the past couple of weeks.

As the Minister of Youth Affairs and Team Leader of the Justice and Security Team it's an area which I'm very interested in.

Some of you may have seen two young men from the south Taranaki town, Hawera, interviewed recently on the Holmes show. Hawera seems to have a problem with youth crime. It's not the only town in New Zealand with this problem, and being a proud town, it's understandable that they are not keen to have local issues given national exposure while they are working to find a local solution.

Both of the young men who appeared on the Holmes show are part of that youth crime problem. Aged 15 and 17, neither of them are at school, nor do they have jobs. The girlfriend of one was about to give birth.

The interview was hard work for Paul Holmes, the young men were inarticulate to say the least. But as Mr Holmes himself has pointed out, it wasn't so much what they said, but how devastating the picture was of two young men, just 15 and 17, hopeless and inadequate.

They are disconnected from their families, from work, from their communities and from their peers. They are isolated, they are young men at risk and their behaviour costs themselves and the community dearly.

I raise that interview with you because two weeks ago I spent a day in Gisborne visiting a number of programmes aimed at helping troubled young people. Gisborne has in the past been an area where youth offending has been an issue.

One of the most alarming things I heard when I was there was that Police had picked up a five-year-old offender off the streets on one Friday night - and he was a repeat offender!

The community, local police and young people themselves are now working hard to tackle youth crime issues, and from what I saw, this problem should soon be a thing of the past.

Let me give you an example. 30% of the young people in Kaiti said they weren't eating any breakfast - now we all know that this is a problem that's not just restricted to families in Kaiti.

So the police and the community got together and with premises and food donated by local businesses, they set up a café to provide breakfast to local young people. The café is not just for breakfast -- a couple of qualified teachers have donated their time and an after-school homework facility has been set up.

The café was painted by young people from the local Conservation Corps, which is part of a nation-wide employment programme funded by the Government.

Now, in most regards, the young people attending the Conservation Corps programme would share similar backgrounds to the two young men I mentioned earlier who appeared on the Holmes show. But the distance between them couldn't be any greater - these young people were articulate and motivated.

The Conservation Corp was the difference. It's a programme that has now been running for ten years and has proved to be enormously successful. Eight out of ten young people taking the course go on to employment or further training or education within six months of completing it. Since 1988, over 10,000 young people have built and maintained hundreds of tracks, planted thousands of trees, painted murals, restored historic places, and carried out more weed control than I would care to imagine.

It is a programme that has put young people back in touch with the working world and education system, with their families, their peers and their community.

The programme has also recently been piloted in Rimutaka, Rolleston and Invercargill Prisons. The prison programmes put young inmates who are nearing release through a number of challenges including conservation projects, first aid and equipment safety learning.

I'm pleased to report that at this early stage, the pilot programmes are proving to be successful. The inmates, mostly aged 19-21, say they are learning new skills and improving their relationships with people. Motivation has been a key factor, these young inmates appreciate that they have something worthwhile to do and are learning new skills.

Prison staff also report that the programme is a positive experience.

There is always going to be a need for programmes like this that provide an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.

Young people will offend and some will end up in prisons. Where they won't have to go in future is to adult prisons. Two weeks ago, myself, and the Ministers of Police, Corrections, Justice, Associate Corrections and Courts visited Mount Eden prison.

We actually visited it on the day after my visit to Gisborne -- what a depressing contrast it was to the atmosphere in Gisborne.

No one is happy when young people are being locked up in places like Mt Eden. Prisons are universities of crime. Developing an alternative to sending teenage offenders to prison is not easy.

What the Code of Responsibility highlighted was the strong concerns the public has about youth offending, youth suicide and the need for initiatives that break the cycle of offending.

Judges are highly reluctant to send teenagers to prison and only do so in extreme circumstances. The offenders have often committed numerous offences and present a very real threat to the public if not securely detained. So, we have been looking at alternatives. The solution we've come up with is specialist regional youth units where young offenders will be kept separate from hardened adult criminals.

We plan on opening up six such units around the country, starting with a 35-bed youth unit to be built at Waikeria Prison which will take its first young inmates in January 2000.

An important part of the new facilities will be increased staff levels and access to teachers so these young people continue their education.

We are seeking public comment on these proposals by 4 December, we want to know what you think. It is important that we get it right.

We've also been doing a lot of work on putting a fence at the top of the cliff to stop young people falling into the justice system in the first place. As part of this commitment we announced a fortnight ago that an extra $14.5 million would be spent on a youth services strategy. This money will mean six community homes, and more money for care and rehabilitation programmes which will be run by community groups including iwi social services, Maori providers and non-government agencies.

We are helping a range of groups to find local answers to local problems. Just as business entrepreneurs define the leading edge of our economy, these groups are 'social entrepreneurs' at the forefront of dealing with the social issues of our times. We will listen to these groups, and we will look at the ideas that work.

If we want to find solutions to young peoples' issues, we have to listen to them. Many young people are living happy, healthy and relatively trouble-free lives. Our challenge lies with those who aren't.