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National’s plan to send children to boot camps is their most anti-evidence policy yet

National today announced a policy package aimed at preventing youth crime, including a plan to send ‘youth offenders’ to boot camps. The Morgan Foundation head researcher and Spinoff Parents science expert Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw explains why this is a terrible idea.

Perhaps Bill English and other people in the National Party do not intend to harm vulnerable children. Perhaps they do not intend that children who are ‘at risk’ will end up at even greater risk. But regardless of their intent, the policy package they have created to address criminal behaviour in young people will harm children – without a doubt.

The National Party has announced it will introduce a string of ‘youth crime prevention’ measures if elected – policies which are all firmly located within a ‘punishment’ framework. That is, the policies are informed by the belief that a punitive response to anti-social behaviours works. I use the word ‘belief” for good reason.

As a scientist I work with evidence every day. Sometimes there is evidence of benefit with policies, sometimes there is insufficient evidence either way, sometimes there is weak evidence, and sometimes we need to experiment further to get more clarity.

This is not one of those times. It is one of the times when a policy has clear evidence of harm.

Lets ask ourselves what we want for these vulnerable kids

New Zealanders want better for kids who are not participating in our society, and they want the support to be given in a way that works for the kids, their families and for the rest of us. We want better for kids who are nudged into crime through a life lacking in positive experiences and insufficient resources. We want them to have a better set of life circumstances, ones that will help them make better choices. At the very least no one wants them the end up in prison – “a moral and fiscal failure” as Bill English calls it.

We all want these kids to thrive as adults. The risk of them being unemployed, not engaged in education, and ending up in prison is high by the time they are engaged in criminal activity in their teen years. There are policies that will reduce that risk and see them lead more positive lives.

Let me be clear, these are NOT the policies that National is proposing.

Why choosing punishment-based policies won’t ever achieve anything good for these kids

The evidence (based on years and years of studies brought together by experts) is very clear that boot camps, military style interventions and prison-like settings increase the risk of crime and recidivism in young people.

Surprising as it may seem, programmes that attempt to prevent ‘at-risk’ youth offending through exposure to the consequences of crime only serve to increase youth offending. Children who go to prison are exposed to prison environments and are much worse off than those who do not. They tend to commit more crime as a result of their experiences. Programmes such as the ‘Scared Straight’ prison-visiting programme actually increase delinquency and offending behaviour relative to doing nothing. Our own Corrections department found an increase in crime after kids attended boot camps.

Neither does high-quality evidence support the provision of alternative opportunities like military style training for young people at risk of gang involvement. Young people who are at risk of becoming involved in youth gangs have more negative thinking and lower self-confidence than other youth. But the various programmes that seek to address these patterns of thinking and behaviour are not based upon sufficiently robust data. There is no good evidence that this approach is effective in reducing involvement in gangs and at-risk behaviours.

With that in mind, it seems clear that National is choosing to base their policy not on evidence but on the fears of their constituents. And these fears have little basis in reality. The people most likely to be victims of youth crime in New Zealand are in fact the young people from our lowest income communities (the same place the young offenders mainly come from).

On this occasion, it is the National Party who are playing to people’s fears with their policy announcement. But political parties from across the spectrum have long been tempted by such approaches. Which is problematic because a) punishment-based policies don’t work and b) they are a breach of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Child (which yes, we are signatories to).

These types of policies are also biased against Māori. The majority of young people in our criminal justice system and those who are the victims of crime are young Māori men. They are group already experiencing the sharpest end of the stick due to years of policy design that has acted against their best interests. Add a policy that punishes them for what is the inevitable result of a lack of investment in their communities and whānau, plus years of unconscious and conscious bias against them, and this pretty much sucks in the ‘doing better for Māori’ stakes.

So what can we do that will work to prevent further crime by young people?

In a systematic review of offending prevention programmes for 12 to 17-year-olds worldwide, the best evidence overall was for programmes that focused on children’s environment and not the individual. Those programmes that addressed social and resourcing issues over a long period of time worked best. I have been pretty clear in my previous writing for The Spinoff about what that looks like. Namely, we need to start by ensuring there are sufficient resources in all families. Below is a infographic I put together on what works best to ensure all children thrive (including avoiding criminal justice involvement).


Figure from Pennies from Heaven (Berentson-Shaw, 2017)

In praise of restorative justice for youth

New Zealand leads the world in thinking about alternative ways to support young people who have been nudged into crime, so it seems strange National would want to take such a retrograde step. Restorative justice includes many things, but most research focuses on ‘conferencing’ between offenders, families and victims. New Zealand has also implemented the Marae-Based Youth Courts (MBYC, or Te Kooti Rangatahi).

The evidence on restorative justice programmes remains fuzzy on whether they prevent youth crime. That may be due to a lack of resources put into research on their effectiveness. That said, restorative justice plays an important role in New Zealand, given that putting children and youth through the adult system leads to very bad outcomes.

If people in National Party want “local solutions that work” then why not work with communities most affected by crime? There is a great opportunity here to further explore alternative community-led models with more rigorous evaluation. We could compare different types of interventions and a wide set of outcomes including recidivism rates, period of deferment for the adult justice system, and long-term adult outcomes, alongside both aspects of justice and outcomes that are important to Māori (noting that the framework in which Māori view justice and restoration is different from non-Māori, with, for example, aspects of whānau and hapu wellbeing given greater precedence than that of the individual).

In conclusion: It’s all bad

As a policy researcher, and as a parent who cares about other people’s kids too, I feel very frustrated by this type of policy. If Bill English really wants to do “what works” then why do the exact opposite? For people who don’t support National this is clearly all bad, but what about those who do support National and care about these kids? For these voters this is also a very confusing policy. It tells them that National values creating better opportunities for kids using what works sometimes, but at other times they will choose policies that don’t work at all – ones that play instead to people’s very worst fears.

We all want better than this for these kids, no matter where we sit on the political spectrum. And we can achieve better for them. Just not this way.

Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw  is a researcher and public communicator. She consults on effective evidence-based policy, and helps people and organisations engage the power of good storytelling to change minds. Follow Dr Jess on Facebook.

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