Christchurch's youth criminals starting younger than ever
Simon* walked into the dairy, pulled out a knife and demanded cigarettes and money.
At the tender age of 15, Simon had just committed his first, as far as we know, aggravated robbery. He got $40 and some cigarettes, a pathetic haul by any standards.
The aftermath of the robbery played out in the Christchurch Youth Court this week.
Simon, a tall, skinny boy with dark hair stands in the dock in the third floor courtroom with his head bowed wearing only socks on his feet.
Judge Jane McMeeken sits about as close to him as a mother would across a kitchen table.
She has a simple question. Why?
"I'm not sure," Simon says.
Judge McMeeken doesn't share his lack of insight.
"It's because your drug addiction is so serious. You're an intelligent young man, there can be no other explanation."
Reading the charge sheet which sets out an offence which doesn't often trouble the Youth Court and the heist's haul, she says: "You got a few packs of cigarettes and a few bucks. How crazy is that?"
Simon is the sort of offender Sergeant Jeff Alford, of the Canterbury Youth Crime Unit, is seeing a lot more of.
He has spent half of his 26 years with the police dealing with troubled youth.
Alford's job is to focus on a group of about 30 of Christchurch's worst youth offenders who are responsible for a disproportionate number of robberies, burglaries and violence in the city.
He says he is increasingly dealing with youth crime of a seriousness he hasn't seen before.
As an example he gives the Woolston Night 'n Day which has been robbed nine times since August by youths armed with weapons such as hammers, machetes, pistols.
Police believe between 10-15 teenagers are responsible for the robberies. The teens are loosely affiliated with a young gang and like to use social media to brag about their latest criminal exploits.
One recently posted on his Facebook page that he was "fully committed to this crime situation".
Alford believes the group are driven mostly by a "narcissistic attitude".
"You've got to ask yourself, why do you keep nailing the Night 'n Day, knowing that at some point the ante is going to be upped, not only by the premises but also by police.
"To me it's just about 'me, I can do it, it's a challenge, I will keep doing it'."
Alford says the gang's member have mostly come through the youth justice system where they've met and formed associations.
"Youth in Christchurch are incredibly well connected. They know who's who, they know who does what and whether they're inside or outside [jail] they're trying to keep tabs on what's going on."
His biggest worry is the number of younger offenders committing more serious crimes without a period of petty offending during which the authorities can intervene and perhaps divert youth from a life of crime.
"We're getting a kid who has very little previous offending coming in doing an aggravated robbery which in our view is a high level of violence, a high level of risk and we have historically considered that to be a really serious offence.
"I've never seen it happen before in terms of that young age group coming through at such a high level of offending."
Alford says the youths committing the robberies aren't afraid of police and don't care much about the consequences of their offending.
"If they go to custody, that provides them with an environment to associate all day, everyday with all their mates."
He says the drop in ages of the offenders is an indicator that things are going wrong sooner in their lives than before.
Alford says some of the offenders were as young as 13, with a 13-year-old placed into secure custody last year.
"I've never seen that before in my career."
"Kids are becoming more and more complex, have more issues and their issues are probably more complex than they've ever been."
It comes as no surprise that Alford sheets the cause of offending to the offenders' homes.
"Kids don't go bad for no reason. We're looking at third, fourth generation of offenders – you can't tell me something's not inherently wrong with the family."
Police struggle to get the parents on side, Alford says. Often the parents will give their children one message when police are there and another when they leave.
"Parents will try and be their friends … there's no boundaries. They actually don't seem to know how to be involved in the kids' lives in a pro-social way."
Apart from McKeeken's admonitions, youth offenders in the Youth Court on the day Simon appears get plenty of advice from other sources. Posters on the courtroom walls scream out messages about bullying, drugs and drink driving.
With McMeeken are representatives from the Ministry of Education, the Ministry for Vulnerable Children and police as well as some family of the youth.
Other offenders are more forthcoming than Simon about their reasons for offending.
One young boy has been watching pornography since he was 4, is a compulsive eater and has a spirit person who speaks to him. A young girl has committed a burglary with her mother and a 15-year-old boy said he hadn't been to school in three years.
Simon, after his initial reserve, admits he needed the money from his robbery to buy cannabis.
His lawyer tells Judge McMeeken the youth is an "above average student" when he does go to school and is "not lacking in intelligence in an academic sense".
"He presents to me as a sad young man, I think underlying this problem with cannabis. He told me two weeks ago that cannabis gave him a buzz and made him feel happy," the lawyer says.
In a later interview Principal Youth Court Judge John Walker says trying to identify the underlying causes of the offending is key. Some of the main causes include fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, neuro disabilities, dyslexia, autism, mental illness and drug addiction.
"These causes would have been around for a very long time, they don't usually just suddenly emerge."
He says about 80 per cent of the offenders in Youth Court have a care and protection history.
"We're dealing with a very complicated group of young people who present multiple challenges in terms of trying to address what it is that's driving their offending."
Night and Day chief executive Tony Allison is less concerned about the complicated causes of youth offending than just wanting the robberies to stop.
"For the people in the store, they don't know how old these kids are when they come in. All they see is the weapons they've got in their hands."
Allison says the robberies are having a huge impact not only on his staff but other dairies who are now arming themselves with baseball bats and other weapons.
He readily admits the biggest obstacle facing the store is trying to make it as safe as possible while remaining commercially viable.
"We can put all the measures in place but ultimately can we control that situation? No, but we're trying to prevent it from happening at all."
Alford says the youth aid section does its best job but acknowledges the problems are bigger than the resources available. He doesn't paint a hopeful picture.
"If there's no major fix then I can't see things going in a positive direction.
"I don't want to paint too dreary of a picture but I think that's it. I'm only seeing what I'm dealing with and it's getting worse in seriousness."
Walker, however, sees hope in way the Youth Court is handling youth offending.
He says the court relies on multidisciplinary teams working collaboratively to address the underlying causes of the offending.
Communities getting involved can make a real difference, he says.
"The bottom line is these kids are products of our community and all the things that can go wrong in a community. It's not one person's responsibility to try and find out what's driving the offending.
"Unless we can understand the why then we will never deal with the problem. These kids will keep coming off the production line in increasing numbers into our Youth Court."
He says society shouldn't write off youth who get into trouble.
"These are people that will cause future victims and will affect the safety of the whole community – it's really not an option for the wider community to say it doesn't affect us."
* Not his real name