Punitive Youth Justice Demerit Points Bill a breach of children's rights

Save the Children Research and Advocacy Director Jacqui Southey says the proposed Oranga Tamariki Youth Justice (Demerit Points) Amendment Bill gets an F for Fail – failing our kids who most need our help and guidance.

It sounds like a practical solution – use the same demerit points system that works for motorists, awarding demerit points based on the offence committed, and apply it to youth justice. Youth will be punished for their actions swiftly and early, proponents of the Bill say – with tiered levels of consequences depending on the type of crime and the overall number of demerit points they have accrued. Supposedly, ‘one-time offenders' will learn from their mistakes and be given the necessary support and guidance they need.

But what the proposed Oranga Tamariki (Youth Justice Demerit Points) Amendment Bill actually does is fail to recognise children’s rights or to recognise the harmful drivers that see too many children enter into our youth justice system. These drivers include, abuse and neglect, PTSD and or trauma, neurodisabilities, brain injuries, exclusion from school and community, or challenging family situations. Institutional racism has also been called out as a problem that remains to be fixed across the system.

In our written submission to the Parliamentary Select Committee considering the Bill last week, we called for politicians to throw it out, saying it is likely to “significantly and negatively impact on children’s rights and will not meet New Zealand’s obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child”.

“The proposed Demerit Points system fails to align with or give value to the implementation of a holistic child justice system that promotes and protects children’s rights and is known to support children away from further offending,” the submission states.

“Children’s rights have not been specifically referenced in this Bill nor in the reasoning of the Member [Darroch Ball] who introduced this Bill to Parliament. At the most basic level, the Bill does not recognise that it is directly aimed at children – persons up to 18 years of age as defined by the Convention.”

More than this, the Bill fails to recognise or incorporate the rights accorded to tamariki and rangatahi Māori under Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and is not informed by the voices of the very children the Bill refers to, their family and wider whānau, nor the experts working at the front line of youth justice. It doesn’t take into account the robust evidence on child and adolescent development, criminal justice systems, developmental crime prevention, or include evidence-based solutions on prevention of child or youth offending or reoffending.

While the current system is not perfect, it works hard to help young people and recognise them as individuals, many of whom have come from tragic circumstances which has contributed to their offending. It draws on a number of evidence-based interventions such as diversion and restorative justice to steer children away from further offending. These initiatives are based on international research, while the proposed Bill appears to be based on a limited data set that does not accurately reflect the full extent of the Youth Justice System – or the drivers for child offending.

The Bill has a dangerous potential to stigmatise and criminalise children through court appearances and formal criminal records.

If New Zealand is to seriously reduce rates of children in the justice system, the interventions need to begin in their earliest years of life to ensure their parents and whanau have the information, support and resources they need so that every child can grow and develop in positive, safe and nurturing environments.