New Zealand Law Society - Youth justice proposed ‘demerit points’ scheme not supported by evidence

Youth justice proposed ‘demerit points’ scheme not supported by evidence

The New Zealand Law Society | Te Kāhui Ture o Aotearoa has told a parliamentary select committee that a bill proposing to introduce a ‘demerit points’ system for youth offenders is not supported by evidence and is unlikely to achieve its objective of delivering appropriate consequences for youth offending. 

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The Law Society presented its submission today to the Social Services and Community select committee on the Oranga Tamariki (Youth Justice Demerit Points) Amendment Bill, a member’s bill that is “intended to improve behaviours and increase accountability and transparency within the youth justice system”.

Seeking to improve interventions for youth offending is a worthwhile objective. However, the Law Society pointed to a lack of evidence to support the suggestion that introducing demerit points will be effective in penalising and deterring repeat offending.

The Law Society also said the claim there is a “pervasive lack of responsibility” by youth offenders is not supported by recent statistics which show a continuing drop in the rate of youth offending.

In addition, the Bill is inconsistent with the philosophy of the Youth Court, which focuses on holding young offenders to account while also recognising their needs and vulnerability so that positive differences can be made in their lives.

“The proposed youth justice demerit points regime – assigning numerical scores for different types of offending – would not address the multiple risk factors that can significantly contribute to youth offending and reoffending. These include mental health problems, neuro-disabilities and traumatic brain injury, physical/sexual abuse, drug and alcohol addiction, housing and education problems,” Law Society spokesperson Dale Lloyd told the committee.

The decision to allocate demerit points to a young person would be made by enforcement officers.

“This would be a significant departure from the long-standing approach of convening a Family Group Conference to enable the young person, their whānau, victims and the community to reach agreement about steps that need to be taken for accountability and rehabilitation. That process would be undermined by putting the power to impose ‘demerit points’ solely in the hands of an enforcement officer”, Ms Lloyd said. 

The Law Society also pointed to the risk that youth offenders would not understand the process and consequences of accumulating demerit points.

“Children and young people who offend often come from complex backgrounds and many typically present with a range of cognitive, communication, learning, and other difficulties (for example, communication disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, anxiety, and substance disorders). There is no recognition, for example, that the notice of accumulated demerit points needs to be explained to the young person in a manner and language that is appropriate to their age and level of understanding”, Ms Lloyd says.

The Law Society pointed to serious concerns about a number of provisions in the Bill. One of those concerns relates to a provision which would allow an enforcement officer to lay charges against a young person directly in the District Court, thereby by-passing the Youth justice jurisdiction completely. 

“This would have the impact of increasing the number of young people charged in the District Court, and would disconnect them from the wrap around support available in the Youth Court.  The concern is that this provision would disproportionately impact rangatahi Māori and lead to a number of significant negative outcomes, including the risk of young people being sentenced to prison”, Ms Lloyd said.  

It recommended significant amendments if the Bill is to proceed, and that advice is needed from officials and others with experience and expertise in the youth justice jurisdiction.