I am in favour of a harder sentencing regime for criminals. However there are certain aspects of that regime where a harder line will not work, and one those areas is the minimum age at which people can be tried in an adult court. Thus I welcome the decision by the Minister of Justice Amy Adams to investigate raising the bar for youths to be tried in the adult court system from 16 to 17.
Under New Zealand law at the moment the Youth Court is for offenders who are aged between 12-16 years. Past that one is eligible to be tried in an adult court.
There are people and organizations who will not see the rationale behind this. One of them is the Sensible Sentencing Trust, which advocates a better deal for victims of violent crime. No reasonable person wants a victim of violent crime to think that they are being short changed, and many live in justifiable fear of what will happen when the perpetrators of the crimes are released from jail. An example would be Bailey Junior Kurariki, who murdered Pizza delivery man Michael Choy when he was just twelve. Mr Kurariki’s case aroused significant anger at the time because people were horrified at what he and his accomplices had done, but there was also significant concern about how and why a boy not even legally considered a teenager would do such a thing. Unfortunately Mr Kurariki’s criminal record has grown substantially since the murder of Mr Choy.
And there are others who think that too many people are going to jail because New Zealanders want a tough line on criminals. These notably include the Greens, whose preference is for restorative justice, and to a lesser extent the Labour Party, which promised in 1999 to get tough on violent offenders, following a referendum that came out overwhelmingly in favour of a harsher regime. I am concerned that too many people will not appreciate what is being attempted with a restorative justice programme though, given that many of todays youth offenders appear to come from busted homes with no role models or have guardians who are perhaps not fit to be their caregivers. As youth offenders are still somewhat impressionable when it comes to influences, it is important that negative ones such as more hardened criminals who would be encountered in the adult system, are isolated from them.
There are several dangers with trying juvenile offenders in an adult court, aside from the significant change in legal environment. The sentencing regime that goes with youth offenders is significantly different to that for adult offenders. Under New Zealand law an adult is considered one who is 18 or older, which means this proposed law change is a step towards addressing a grey period that has youth offenders who might not be suited to an adult court being tried in one. And rightfully has the support of Opposition M.P.’s in Parliament.