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(Photo: Getty Images, additional design Tina Tiller)
(Photo: Getty Images, additional design Tina Tiller)

PoliticsNovember 17, 2022

The cases for and against National’s youth offender ‘boot camps’

(Photo: Getty Images, additional design Tina Tiller)
(Photo: Getty Images, additional design Tina Tiller)

National has revived its plan to send young offenders to military-style ‘boot camps’. Here are the arguments being made for and against.

It’s seemingly a perennial policy of the National Party and so, like political clockwork, it was reannounced again this week. The party has pledged to send serious youth offenders to boot camps (officially called Young Offender Military Academies) if it wins the next election. 

The 12-month long courses would, according to a press release from National, “provide discipline, mentoring and intensive rehabilitation to make a decisive intervention in these young offenders’ lives”. The Defence Force will be charged with delivering the programmes alongside other providers, and anyone aged 15 to 17 could be forced to attend.

It’s a very similar policy to that proposed by then-prime minister Bill English ahead of the 2017 election, though 14-year-olds were swept up in the plan back then too. Of course, National’s election defeat resulted in the policy being parked. Prior to that, a similar policy also involving military-style camps was actually rolled out for the 40 most serious young offenders back in 2009, though that was on a voluntary basis.

But with another election cycle set to hinge on the pros and cons of sending young criminals out to snowy Waiouru, here’s what the policy’s advocates and detractors have said. 

The case for

Those in favour of youth offender boot camps largely view the policy as a way of getting young criminals off the street and into a place where they can allegedly learn the error of their ways. They’ll hopefully go back into society after 12 months with a worth ethic, a drive to learn and, theoretically, the means to give up a lifestyle that would otherwise see them end up in prison.

“National is the party of law and order,” said National Party leader Christopher Luxon this week, echoing his forebears. “New Zealand’s youth justice system works well for the majority of young offenders; 80% of first-time offenders who interact with the youth justice system are dealt with quickly and put back on the right path.

“National’s combatting youth offending plan targets the most serious repeat young offenders and will disrupt crimes like ram-raids by removing the ringleaders, some of whom have gang connections.”

Fronting to the media on Thursday, Luxon and his police spokesperson Mark Mitchell said the boot camp policy would act almost as a circuit breaker for young offenders, taking them off the streets and then, after 12 months, sending them back into the world “work ready”. 

Christopher Luxon (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

National’s most likely coalition partner, Act, gave a lukewarm endorsement of the policy. “Act questions whether the military, with their various challenges, would want to babysit 15-year-olds who don’t want to be there,” said leader David Seymour. “But we welcome the idea that there needs to be an escalation to a secure facility for kids who breach electronic monitoring.” Seymour was more supportive of National’s plans to use electronic monitoring for serious youth offenders.

Back in 2017, Act was critical of the boot camp plan, saying it was a tried-and-failed policy. 

There has also been non-political support for the boot camp policy in the past, though much of this seems to stem back to the initial scheme from more than a decade ago. For example, in 2011, judge Andrew Becroft (who would go onto become children’s commissioner) said there was merit in military activity camps insofar as they could help with team building and the development of life skills. However, he also believed they would be unlikely to, on their own, reduce reoffending.

In the same year, the Sensible Sentencing Trust said there were positives to the plan. A spokesperson at the time said boot camps would encourage young people to learn boundaries, possibly for the first time.

The case against

The case against is largely based around the idea that youth offender boot camps would actually do little to stop youth crime. The early version of these camps, back in the late 2000s, was criticised for exactly that. Only two of the 17 youth offenders sent to the camps across the first two years of the scheme had not reoffended by 2011.

“[National’s] plans are archaic and evidence shows that boot camps and prison don’t work,” said the Māori Party’s Auckland candidate Shane Taurima in 2017. “What these children need is a whānau ora approach, kaupapa Māori and more support across social services and education.” A fairly damning assessment, considering the Māori Party was a support partner of National in 2017.

The Greens, similarly, described the proposal as “heartless and illogical” at the time, arguing family support was more important than shipping of kids to camps. Current Green MP Golriz Ghahraman shared a Facebook post in which she called the boot camp policy a “slap down to all the experts, victim communities, and… young people.”

Politicians weren’t the only ones voicing their views on the policy back in 2017 either. In an interview with Newshub, sociologist and crime expert Jarrod Gilbert said the effect of boot camps was “quite minimal” and would basically just “make young crooks a bit stronger and a bit fitter”.

In some cases, he argued, they could also have negative effect on young people. “The public listen to it and go, ‘Well, that seems to make sense – give these kids a short, sharp shock.’ Unfortunately the evidence is they have very limited effect or the unintended consequence of actually increasing crime,” Gilbert told Newshub.

Writing for The Spinoff, researcher Jess Berentson-Shaw concurred. “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,” she wrote.

According to Berentson-Shaw, the evidence showed that military style interventions would actually increase the risk of crime among young people, rather than have the desired effect of cutting the cycle of offending. “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,” she argued.

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