Whose fault is it when the young and vulnerable offend?

Rather than waste our energies finger pointing, taking collective responsibility for tackling the complex underlying causes of youth offending has a better chance of success, argues Principal Youth Court Judge John Walker 

 When we hear about an aggravated robbery of a dairy or service station by a young person, and we read about the long-term pain, injury and emotional trauma suffered by those who are robbed, we are right to be deeply concerned.

There is often a call for courts to treat these young offenders like adults: “Adult crime, adult time.”

The sad truth is that they are still children.

When they are 10 or 11, we see them as “vulnerable” children in need of care and protection. Then their offending behaviour, emerging out of the very same vulnerability, changes the game. Suddenly, it is all their fault.

But whose fault is it when children and young people offend? And how can we apportion blame when we are struggling to understand the complex weave of underlying issues that set children on a collision course with the law? After all, children do not grow up in a vacuum. They are raised in families; families that make up communities which are supposed to be the backbone of our society.

The long-term protection of communities from offending behaviour and the reclaiming of young lives requires recognition of what lies beneath the behaviour, and addressing that effectively. Communities are integral to that.

In the Youth Court, we are often playing “catch up”, trying to turn young lives around by dealing with issues which have been there, and identifiable, for many years, maybe even from birth.

The court strives to understand what is driving the behaviour. It seeks to deal with these underlying causes using multi-disciplinary teams and by applying the court’s authority to engender motivation to engage in interventions.

The complexity of the lives we are working with makes it an immense challenge. It seems the more we learn about young offenders the harder it gets. One thing is certain: unless the underlying causes of offending are tackled effectively, offending will continue. And the longer we wait to intervene the tougher it will become.

There is little doubt that the nature of offending that reaches the Youth Court is becoming more serious and complex. We are seeing more violent offending, particularly in high-density, high-deprivation areas, and increasingly by girls. So worrying is the emerging trend of violent offending among girls and young women that last year my office started a multi-agency initiative to try and develop effective responses.

Most of those who appear in the Youth Court have a background of Care and Protection proceedings in the Family Court. They have a history of being considered seriously at risk. Neuro disability disorders such as Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, intellectual disability and dyslexia are significantly higher in those who come to court than in the general population. There is increasing mental illness – so much so that issues of fitness to stand trial are no longer rare.

Judge John Walker at the launch of Whangarei’s Rangatahi Court at Terenga Paraoa marae in February

Being in school is a major protective factor against offending yet almost half the young people who offend are not attending school. There is a very clear co-relation between exposure to family violence and going on to commit serious violent offences. About 80% of children and young people who offend are estimated to have experienced family violence, either directly or indirectly.

Latest research suggests that girls especially are more likely to become violent offenders and to mix with violent men if they have been exposed to family and sexual violence while growing up.

The effects of growing up in a climate of violence are severe: physically, emotionally, and developmentally, including on the unborn. I agree with the view that if you bring a child up in a war zone you end up with a warrior.

Bring any one of these complications into a young life – let alone more than one of them – and we begin to understand why a young person has offended.

Often I finish reading a psychological report detailing the tumultuous background of a young offender and the question I ask is: “So why is anyone surprised about what has happened?” A 14-year-old boy with the same underlying issues that as a 10-year-old made him vulnerable is now considered criminal; a dangerous teen on his way to becoming a dangerous adult.

The behaviours and coping mechanisms, the delayed development and disengagement from school and community are well entrenched. Deprived of a safe and nourishing environment to grow up in, teens like him are on a path to prison.

It is too easy, and simplistic, for communities to view youth offending as evidence of teenagers “gone bad”, of an emerging generation who are hopeless, dangerous and need to be put behind bars. In my view, taking collective responsibility for the plight of those who fall into paths of crime – including for the effects of their behaviour – is a crucial start for fashioning effective responses and lasting solutions.

Recognising that behaviour does not come from nowhere requires us to ask what we can do – community by community – to address the causes of offending and to provide environments in which our young people can thrive, enabling us to reclaim young lives for the benefit of all.

The Youth Justice system cannot operate successfully in isolation. It needs community involvement to help address the underlying causes of youth offending. Communities have enormous untapped resource to help find solutions. Often they just need to be engaged, given information about what we are seeing, and shown a pathway to join with those agencies and families who need their help.

The Youth Court and its judges have a powerful role in this. We know that engagement between courts and the communities they serve can enable local resources to come into the court to help, in areas such as literacy, mentoring and employment training and opportunities.

Rather than waste our energies finger pointing, constructive approaches that involve communities taking collective responsibility for their young people and learning about and then addressing the underlying causes of behaviour are more likely to turn lives around.


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