Q+A: Judge Andrew Becroft - Youth court no “namby-pamby, kumbaya-singing, milo-drinking sort of affair.”
Q + A
Interviewed by GREG BOYED
GREG Crimes involving children never fail to shock. Only this week, Kaitaia police took a 12-year-old boy into
custody who they believe may have been on meth when he allegedly tried to rob a dairy with a teenager. While these kind
of cases make the headlines, the real story is that youth crime has been tracking downwards for some time now. I spoke
to principal Youth Court judge Andrew Becroft last week and asked is it a sign that our youth justice system is working?
ANDREW I think it’s outstandingly good news. We’ve never caught less young people. There’s a 50% drop in young people
coming to court. The numbers have never been lower. We can be cautiously optimistic. In my view, the system is working
across the board, not just the Youth Court, the entire youth justice system. We need to be cautious, however, in three
respects. One, we know that violent offending isn’t dropping at the same rate. Secondly, we know that while female
offending is dropping, it’s not dropping at the same rate as offending by young men. And thirdly, while Maori offending
is dropping, crucially, it’s not dropping at nearly the same rate as non-Maori youth offending. So the
disproportionality of Maori in the Youth Court has gone from about 45% to 65%. In about 20 courts, more than 75% of
those appearing are Maori. So that’s the caution in the otherwise very good news that we never hear in the media.
GREG I want to sort of look at all three of those aspects, first and foremost the violent side of it. Just this week
a 12- and 15-year-old allegedly went into a Kaitaia dairy armed – 12 and 15 years old. Why are we seeing younger and
younger kids trying on these sorts of crimes? What factors can that be put down to?
ANDREW Well, the first thing to say is thankfully these sorts of incidences are few and far between and they’re not a
trend, but the deeper question is why are we seemingly becoming a more violent community? And probably the answers go a
long way back. They go nought to 2, nought to 5. Most of the serious young offenders in the Youth Court are the most
damaged, the most dysfunctional, the most disadvantaged children in New Zealand and they come from backgrounds of
relative poverty, but that’s not an overwhelming causative factor. They come from transient families, violent families,
abusive families, families where fathers or siblings are in prison, families where there’s chronic third-generation
violence. And we are beginning to see in a small group – it’s only 2000 or so in Youth Court in New Zealand – that
dominate the headlines, but we’re seeing that sort of violence that should rightly concern the whole nation.
GREG That’s a generational thing you’re talking about. How do you break that cycle when it seems such an ingrained
thing? It goes back to fathers, even grandfathers at this point.
ANDREWCorrect, correct. Everything that we see in the Youth Court points us back to that nought to 2, nought to 5, St Ignatius
of Loyola was right; give me the child till 7, we’ll give you the adult. Those issues are really outside the purview of
the Youth Court, but we look back. We see better earlier intervention, we see better combined government intervention,
but we can always do much better. At the here and now level, we need to respond to that sort of violence, and the Youth
Court holds those young offenders to account. The Youth Court is often misunderstood as some sort of soft, namby-pamby,
Kumbaya-singing, Milo-drinking sort of affair, but there are avenues available and responses available to deal with
those tough offenders. I have no pride in saying, for instance, that a boy 14½ years old was convicted of two vicious,
violent, predatory rapes and received a seven-year prison sentence. So the Youth Court does hold young people to account
at the top end. We also know there are very good interventions available for the Youth Court. They all are
jargon-sounding words like multi-systemic family therapy, but they involve working with the whole family system in the
community with a collegial approach with a team of experts, and that does work. It’s hard work, it’s demanding work, but
we know it works.
GREG You’ve mentioned a number of sort of key ages there. At what point is it too late? Are these kids on this path
at 7, 15, as you said, 14, 15 years old and that’s just going to be their lot? They’re going to be bad, bad people who
are going to end up in jail pretty much for most of their lives?
ANDREW Well, Greg, I wouldn’t be in the job if I didn’t have huge optimism that it’s never too late, but it’s much
harder. The earlier we can intervene, it costs less and it’s more effective. The later we intervene, it’s tougher and it
costs more. We know, for instance, of those top-end offenders in the Youth Court, about 45% go on to offend as adults.
We don’t know which 45 when we deal with them in the Youth Court, but that’s in one sense depressing but also a
challenging figure. It’s also reassuring to know nowhere else in the world does any better and, in fact, New Zealand
does better for its family group conference system and its joined-up community-wide approach than most other countries
do. But it’s never too late. But we know that for a small group of what the jargon calls life-course persistent
offenders, they’re going to be an enormous challenge long after the Youth Court’s done their best with them.
GREG I want to go through a bit of a scenario with you, and you mentioned this earlier with the generational thing.
You’ve got a family – Grandad was a bad bugger in prison. So is Dad – he’s still in prison. You’ve got a kid maybe 10
years old, 11 years old now. Social workers are going to look at that kid and go, ‘In that environment, that kid is just
going to go down the same path.’ What powers do you have to stop that at this point, or do you just have to wait for the
bomb to go off?
ANDREWWell, for the Youth Court, it’s triggered by offending, so there’s got to be offending. For 10 to 13, there’s a very
good child offending system. It’s a bit complex and convoluted, and it perhaps needs to be simplified somewhat, but we
can intervene. Those questions about when we remove children from a family – they’re not Youth Court decisions; they’re
Family Court decisions. They’re absolutely critical decisions, and of course we want Child, Youth and Family to get it
right and do better. I guess a deeper question for our country, as a proud New Zealander I say that, how is it that we
have one of the worst rates in the UNICEF child index of abuse in the world? I mean, how have we got to a place in our
country where these figures are so bad? That’s a real challenge.
GREG Can we just touch on something you mentioned right at the beginning as well – the amount of female offenders
we’re seeing, serious offenders? What can that be put down to? Because for a lot of people, that’s a relatively recent
revelation, I would imagine.
ANDREWYeah, it’s something that’s challenging and causing deep concern within the whole youth justice system. It’s wider than
a judge’s expertise to comment, but we do know that most female young offenders in the Youth Court, they are 15- or
16-year-olds with the life experience of a 24-year-old, shall we say, often have been seriously abused, often sexually
abused. Their offending usually is contrary to most youth offending – alcohol-free, it’s targeted, it’s in the context
of people who they know. It’s a very complex issue, quite different from male offending. Male serious violent offending,
that is usually random, spontaneous, unplanned, alcohol-fuelled.
GREG What about the age of criminal responsibility? Do we need to look at that, and do we need to revise that?
ANDREWWell, the Crimes Act age is 10. In terms of the Youth Court jurisdiction, it ends at 16th birthday. We don’t include
17-year-olds. Most of the rest of the world does. It’s in accordance with the brain science to include it. It’s a matter
for Parliament. It’s not my role as a judge to comment on it, but I can highlight some of the issues. I think the
concern is that maybe the Youth Court would provide a soft approach. As I’ve explained, we can hold young offenders to
account, 17-year-olds included. No 17-year-old who is now charged in the district court who offended seriously would
likely be dealt with any differently. The advantage would be that we, New Zealand, leads the world, where there’s about
80% of young offenders that aren’t charged. They don’t come to court. They’re dealt with in the community, usually with
police; Youth Aid; Child, Youth and Family intervention. We do that extraordinarily well, in my view. The rest of the
world watches what we are doing. We are seen as world leaders. If 17-year-olds were included in the system, it would be
a major step to try to extract a group of teenagers who don’t need to go on to the adult court at all. We’re concerned
in New Zealand about Maori disproportionality. In a sense, it’d be a silver bullet to extract a number –
disproportionate number, it would be of Maori, in particular – 17-year-olds who don’t need a formal district court
intervention but could be dealt with in some other way. But for those who need a district court intervention, the
ammunition is there. It’s an important public debate. It’s a matter for Parliament. It’s not for me as a judge to
express a view on it.
GREG Anne Tolley has announced— is going to review CYFS – a fairly far-reaching review of CYFS. From what you know of
what is being looked at and what’s going to happen, what are your thoughts on it?
ANDREW I’ve been in the role 14 years now, Greg, and I think there have been six or seven reviews of CYFS. CYFS will
always need to do better, but because the underlying problems are so profound, I think, humanly speaking at this side of
heaven, there are probably always going to be huge concerns why it can be done better. It’s a little bit unfair in one
sense to hold CYFS totally to account to be the solution for what, as I explained earlier, is a huge societal problem.
The real question is, as New Zealand, how can we be happy with the levels of child abuse that are taking place? But it’s
important, and I’m optimistic. I’ve appeared before the review panel. I’m excited by some of the thinking. I think
there’s every reason to believe there’ll be steps forward coming out of this review.