Changing young lives through a focus on the underlying causes of offending

By Judge Tony FitzGerald

Judge FitzGerald

The vast majority of young people who come to police attention are unlikely to go on to be adult offenders.  Their behaviour is really to do with their age and stage of life.

During adolescence, a process of pruning and connecting of wiring in the brain occurs.  Until that process is complete, the ability to problem solve, control impulses and consider the consequences of actions is not fully developed.

Young people are, therefore, more susceptible to negative influences and pressure, and are impulsive.  These young people, who will soon out-grow their bad behaviour, make up about 80 percent of youth offenders but commit only about 20 percent of youth crime.  Most are dealt with by the police outside the court system.  

Most of the remaining 20 percent, who commit about 80 percent of serious offences, tend to have backgrounds marked by multiple problems and have a complex range of issues underlying their offending.  It is this group which occupies much of the Youth Court’s time and resources as well as those of other agencies and professionals.   

They share many common characteristics.  About three-quarters are also known to our welfare agency, Oranga Tamariki, for serious care and protection concerns.  This group of young people have the worst prognosis of any appearing in the court, with about nine out of ten progressing to adult offending.

For most, the trouble they get into is an almost anticipated result of their traumatic lives of abuse and neglect.   Most have used substances to self-medicate — to dull the pain their trauma and impoverished lives cause.  Many start their alcohol and other drug abuse early; some before they are ten.  

Most have left school early and this is often due to a learning disability and behavioural problems that are a direct consequence of a neuro-disability such as Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, traumatic brain injury, ADHD, autism and a variety of other mental health concerns.  

Some also suffer from psychological and psychiatric disorders which impair their thinking and may cause them to display little or no remorse or victim empathy.

Having disappeared from the education system early, they spend their days with others in a similar situation.  Many become involved in gangs, which usually leads to offending.  

The inter-generational dysfunction and disadvantage of their family lives mean most lack positive role models, and many have become disconnected from their culture.  The poverty of their circumstances creates a sense of hopelessness about improving their situation.  

About 80 percent of this group are young men but there is a disturbing trend toward more serious violent offending by young women.  

Though bleak, the fact these risk factors are so prevalent but preventable means the opportunity exists to address them and change the trajectories these young people are on.  This is the work the Youth Court is dedicated to doing well, together with ensuring that the young people are held accountable for their mistakes, and the interests of victims are addressed appropriately.  

Positive change happens often enough to encourage the ongoing hard work of all involved and to constantly remind us that being at risk does not determine a young person’s destiny.

“The District Court is governed by a set of procedural rules designed to ensure that disputes proceed and resolve efficiently while ensuring fairness to all involved”