Youth Justice age to be raised to 18, Anne Tolley announces

Minister of Justice Amy Adams.
Ross Giblin

Minister of Justice Amy Adams.

The youth justice age has been raised to 18, ensuring offenders 17 and under will be dealt with in the youth court, away from more hardened criminals dealt with in District Courts. 

But the extension only applies to lower risk 17-year-olds who would face the Youth Court system if they committed a crime. Certain violent crimes like murder, rape, aggravated assault, would earn automatic inclusion in the adult court system. 

Justice Minister Amy Adams and Social Development Minister Anne Tolley made the announcement today, also outlining changes to the level of discretion Judges had to refer a child aged 14-16 up to the District Court. 

The recommendation to raise the Youth Justice age came from an expert panel pulled together by Anne Tolley to overhaul ...

The recommendation to raise the Youth Justice age came from an expert panel pulled together by Anne Tolley to overhaul the state care system.

The changes, which will take place by 2019, will ensure that all 17-year-old offenders are dealt with according to which jurisdiction is best suited to the particular case, they said.

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Youth Court is often referred to as the "jewel in the New Zealand justice crown", and has seen a dramatic reduction in youth offending over the years; the interventions are more targeted and focused on rehabilitation rather than punishment.

17-year-olds who are serious, violent offenders who commit a range of offences like murder, manslaughter, sexual assaults, aggravated robbery, arson, or serious assaults will continue to be dealt with by adult courts. 

Tolley said work was beginning to make an additional funding bid at the next budget or beyond, particularly as investigations continue over whether Youth Justice Residences - which fall under the control of Child, Youth and Family - are resourced to hold more teens. 

Adams said it was expected about 150 in average per year, would be transferred to the adult court.

"In addition, we're ensuring the non-imprisonable traffic offences will be dealt with in the Youth Court and that anyone dealt with in the Youth Court can be held in an adult facility if the risk requires," she said.  

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The recommendation to raise the Youth Justice age came from an expert panel pulled together by Tolley to overhaul the state care system. 

It recommended th age be raised to be in line with the age of care, for which state wards remain with Government support. 

Changes to the discretion able to be applied by judges include a requirement to give greater consideration to the impact of the offending on victims and recidivism. 

"What we're doing is strengthening that discretion and making it very clear, that what the judges need to have front of mind is the risk to the community, the interests of the victim, the seriousness of the offending and also the history of the offender. 

"If you're seeing someone through the Youth Court several times, and we're not seeing signs of improvement, they need to go to the adult court," Adams said. 

Opposition justice spokeswoman Jacinda Ardern said it had been a longtime coming. 

"Just last week Anne Tolley was telling us we didn't have the resources to make this change so we're pleased to see a quick turnaround."

Ardern said there was a lot of pressure on the youth court system, but it did work "very well". 

"So those pressure points should not be a reason not to make this change, but it does mean we need to make sure it's properly resourced."

NZ First justice spokesman Darroch Ball said the policy was a "recipe for disaster". 

"The Minister knows that young offenders are continuously cycling in and out of our youth justice system indicating inadequate intervention."

The decision has been welcomed by a number of major organisations including Unicef and advocacy group Just Speak. 

Unicef Child Rights Advocate Dr Prudence Stone said Unicef was "Unicef is singing from the rooftops". 

"If only all the recommendations of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child could have this quick turnaround and prioritisation," she said.

New Zealand came up for review under the Convention at UN headquarters in Geneva earlier in the year. 

Unicef New Zealand Executive Director, Vivien Maidaborn was there, and said it did not go unnoticed that New Zealand had been an outlier as one of the few countries in the world that still tried 17-year-olds in the adult criminal justice system.

Just Speak advocacy group director Dr Katie Bruce said the announcement was welcome but "long overdue".

"This is just fantastic news. We acknowledge the Government for making the decision, but also acknowledge those voices and organisations who have pushed for taking young people out of the adult criminal justice system."

Police Association President Chris Cahill said it was "vital" the Government resourced the new policy properly. 

About 73 per cent of police opposed the move, he said. And among frontline youth aid offers, just over half opposed it. 

"Police need to be able to do their job as best they can at all levels of offending, and as the country knows, many areas of policing are currently stretched to breaking point" Cahill. 

"The last thing we need is any increase in our workload and we are concerned that this move is based on youth court numbers and not the myriad of other ways Youth Aid officers work to keep the majority of child/youth offenders out of any courtroom." 

 - Stuff

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