Darroch Ball: The truth about young offenders on remand

Opinion 04/06/2019

By Darroch Ball, New Zealand First MP, spokesperson for Law and Order, and Youth Affairs.

The Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft recently commented on the increasing number of youth being held on remand in youth justice residences.  He made it clear that this was a poor choice for the placement of youth, and cautioned that it was becoming “a default option” for youth court judges to place young offenders in these residences. 

However, if you look at it in more detail, it is clear that the reason why more youth are being held in custody on remand is not because it’s just becoming “a default option”.

Firstly, the vast majority of youth in court are actually granted bail at their initial hearing.

The vast majority are not remanded in custody.

According to an Oranga Tamariki report from 2018, 90% of all court hearings included a period on bail, with just 4% detained in custody at the start of their court hearing and remaining for the duration.  The fact that the small 4% has somehow been labelled the “default” beggars belief.

Secondly, as Oranga Tamariki have found, the vast majority of all custodial remands actually occurred following the youth already being on bail.  That means that the youth was given bail but then either reoffended or breached their bail conditions.

They weren’t held on remand straight away, but rather reoffended to end up there.

A very concerning fact that illustrates this is that between the period of 2011 and 2016, almost half of all youth on bail reoffended, and those with three or more bail breaches doubled from 20% to over 40%.  Of those in custody, 94% of them either breached their bail conditions or reoffended whilst on bail.  This isn’t the case being painted by some individuals, of first time young offenders being shoved in detention centres.

These are recidivist high level offending youth – even before they are put in custody. 

Police youth aid officers who took part in focus groups as part of the report stated that “two subsequent bail breaches were allowed before an arrest could be made.  They said that Police had to focus more on proving whether a young person had ‘complied’ or ‘breached’ their bail conditions rather than making the young person accountable for their breaches”.

And therein lies the problem.

What’s clear then is that the increasing numbers of those held on remand is not evidence that judges are trigger happy with custody, but rather that the number of repeat and serious offenders is actually going up.  Oranga Tamariki’s stats clearly show this – in addition to rising reoffending, the average seriousness of offending by youth has been steadily increasing over the past few years. 

Ultimately we need to be careful having a cursory glance at the issue.

We should do more than basing our entire response on one dimensional thinking.  If we look deeper at the issue, in most cases, the authorities actually had very little choice but to place them in custody. 

This does highlight the need for better resources and support for those youth on bail to ensure they don’t reoffend in the first place.  But it also highlights that it’s not just about bail – more and more youth offenders are committing serious crimes.  These aren’t the kids who would just steal a Moro bar.

They have been involved with either the police, courts or residence for years. 

The most important point of all of this is that if we have the evidence that the numbers of those needing to be placed in custodial remand is increasing, that the number of those who reoffend on bail is increasing, and that the seriousness of the crimes being committed is increasing – then it should be a red flag to us all that our youth justice system is failing.

Darroch Ball – New Zealand First spokesperson for Law and Order, and Youth Affairs.