The long road to humanising youth justice

History of youth justice system provides lessons for today, senior lecturer Christine McCarthy says.

Last month, the latest thinking on youth justice got an airing at the Australasian Youth Justice Conference as public servants, youth advocates, academics, and other practitioners and researchers came together to discuss the topic.

The messages were clear: treating young people differently from adults is important to prevent reoffending. Diverting them from the criminal justice system not only provides better outcomes for these individuals but for the community as a whole.

Personalised and humane approaches are also more successful than punitive approaches.

Age-appropriate communication - that recognises the cognitive and language disorders common among this group of young people - means they can better understand court processes and better comply with what the justice system asks of them. As Sally Kedge, from Talking Trouble Aotearoa, said “remove the ‘blah’.”

The conference was a particularly cogent experience for me. It coincided with research I was doing on New Zealand's implementation of a Children's Court system, following the passing of the Child Welfare Act way back in 1925.

The Act heralded a change away from treating children as adults in the justice system. As legal researcher Christopher Cripps wrote in 1972, “[t]he rituals of the law were to be modified ... the public were to be excluded to avoid stigmatising the child with the brand of a criminal trial. There was to be an effort to make the child aware that he or she was an integral part of the proceedings”.

Children were defined as under 16 years. However, a magistrate could also refer anyone under 18 to the Children's Court. Then Minister of Justice James Parr encouraged compassion, saying of boys and girls under 19, “[w]e should adopt nothing but a policy of mercy towards the erring ones”.

The main political parties at the time were the Reform and Liberal Parties - which would later form the National Party - and the recently-formed Labour Party. The Reform government position was that children should be diverted from court processes where possible, and that they “require protection and guidance rather than disciplinary punishment”.

Thomas Wilford (leader of the opposition Liberal Party) said he would like to see “Children's Courts established throughout the country”. Labour Party leader Harry Holland also voiced his support for the move away from “the idea of punishment”, proposing “[t]he whole idea should be to give hospital treatment to the children, rather than punitive treatment”.

What struck me was both the cross-party agreement achieved and the resonance of this 100-year-old thinking with the research of youth justice practitioners and researchers today.

A significant difference between the 1920s discussion and last month's conference was the former’s lack of appreciation of indigenous ways of doing things. However, the broad concept of a personalised and humane approach to young people who offend was common to both.

The Children's Court was a progressive innovation in this country. But the gains made then did not survive. Cripps, writing in the 1970s, referred to the impact of WWII and noted, “the original ideals behind the creation of a separate Children's Court have disappeared in practice”.

The double whammy of the Great Depression followed by WWII meant resources that might have secured a future for the Children's Court were not available. Instead, cases were heard in an ad hoc arrangement of government department offices and rented spaces, rather than in permanently dedicated spaces.

It seems Children's Courts were not proactively rejected—they were just not proactively cherished.

Today, the hard work of many in the youth justice sector is gradually improving outcomes and benefiting young people, as well as the wider community by reducing reoffending. Increasing use of Rangatahi Courts is one example.

But the fate of Children's Courts raises questions about how we maintain such important change. It warns that our priorities and investments in times of uncertainty and global challenges - such as the Depression and WWII then, and the pandemic now - can have much longer ramifications for social progress or lack of it.

Their disappearance is also a reminder of the need for continuing proactive work to ensure such important changes stick.

Read the original article at Newsroom.

Christine McCarthy is a senior lecturer in the Wellington School of Architecture at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington, where her research includes prison architecture. She is a former president of the Wellington Howard League for Penal Reform.