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Becroft: Youth court needs flexibility

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 15/02/2017 Karen Sweeney
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More flexibility is needed to allow 18 and 19-year-old offenders to be dealt with in youth courts under special circumstances, Children's Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft says.

The former Principal Youth Court Judge believes it could be in the interest of justice to allow up to 1800 children who are developmentally delayed, disabled or have not seriously offended to be transferred to the youth court in the same way high-risk and serious youth offenders can be transferred to the adult courts.

Any move would likely be an expansion of Justice Minister Amy Adams' announcement in December that low-risk 17-year-old offenders could be moved to that jurisdiction.

Judge Becroft said those likely to be affected were "seriously damaged, usually abused and neglected young children" who are no longer in education, dependent on drugs and from violent homes.

"It's a group that needs to be held to account ... that the public needs to be kept safe from in the short term, of course," he told NZ Newswire.

"But it's a group that needs absolutely specialist, collegial, wraparound intervention because otherwise we're delaying the downstream severe and extreme consequences.

"I think there's room for much more flexibility of approach."

Intervention through the youth justice system could provide a better chance at holding those young people to account and ensuring enduring and meaningful rehabilitation, he said.

This decade is said to be the decade of understanding of neurodevelopmental disabilities, he said.

As a result "history may judge us somewhat harshly" for treatment of young people who may be subject to those disorders, he warned.

Judge Becroft was appointed as Children's Commissioner six months ago after spending 16 years in the youth court.

When he was appointed, reducing the youth court age to 18 was one of three priorities he set out to achieve.

Given the success in that area, he believes his new proposal could be considered, debated and implemented within two years.

He also want to see concerns around the use of police cells to hold children for days at a time being addressed.

Sometimes children must be held in police cells, before and after court appearances, for up to 24 hours, he said.

But in some cases they are being held for up to five days at a time in solitary, cellular confinement.

"We know that young people who are said to be not at risk of suicide, in suicide proof cells, have in the extremity of the moment acted very unpredictably and have been at severe risk," he said.

"That's something that ought to concern all of us that deal with children and I know it concerns police."

He has called for a return to a suite of community-based facilities to be reinstated in favour of using police cells.

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