Chief Children’s Commissioner Dr Claire Achmad says she has concerns with a “military-style” approach when it comes to dealing with young offenders.

A new Young Serious Offender declaration, as revealed by the Government as part of a law and order announcement yesterday, could be applied to teenagers aged between 14 and 17 who have committed two offences punishable by imprisonment of 10 years of more and were assessed as being likely to reoffend by a court.

It would also allow more options for the Youth Court and police. Serious and persistent young offenders could be sent to a new military-style academy, subjected to a greater use of electronic and judicial monitoring, and police will have the power to arrest a young person without warrant for non-compliance with conditions of an order or a breach of their bail conditions.

While Children’s Minister Karen Chhour said the policy would “benefit their lives in the long run” and will “reduce the number of victims they are creating”, Achmad said the policy may further stigmatise young offenders who are already isolated from the community.

“I need to reiterate these are children we are talking about, and from a children’s rights perspective, I do have concerns about these policies … my concerns are even deeper when it comes to our mokopuna Māori, children and young people with [fetal alcohol spectrum disorder] and neuro-disabilities, and children and young people who have been in the care and protection of the state.”

Achmad added the young serious offender category would apply to children who “already feel they don’t belong in our communities” and have experienced “deep trauma in their lives”.

“Evidence tells us that. The majority of persistent young offenders have experienced family breakdowns, trauma in their lives, family violence, mental health, addictions, they have come from backgrounds of poverty and insecurity.

“So rather than stigmatising these children and young people even further, what we need to be doing is placing further care around them to help them rehabilitate and move on from that trauma so they can become positive members of our communities and societies that we all want them to be.”

While Achmad acknowledged the work surrounding the policy, particularly around assessing the needs of young offenders and providing mentoring and transition support, she reiterated she is concerned about “anything that is military-style” when it comes to children.

“That is not a children’s rights approach. So I am simply questioning whether we need that military-style component of this programme.

“We actually know positive alternatives that do all that wrap around support that the minister is talking about, they already exist. Initiatives like Kotahi te Whakaaro in South Auckland, Mahuru in Te Tai Tokerau, these are initiatives that I’ve seen first hand and that the evidence shows is working to ensure that young people don’t go on to reoffend in our communities.”

‘We’re talking about kids’

Youth development worker AJ Hendry said the children who would fit under the new category have been abused, harmed, are often living in poverty and some have experienced homelessness.

Youth development worker AJ Hendry.

“[They] are acting out of trauma and deep suffering and pain.”

“When we talk about being tougher and getting harsh, we’ve got to remember these young people’s lives are already as tough and as harsh as it could get.

“We’re talking about kids, and children who have grown up in this context and environment that this is all that is known.”

Hendry said as a community people have to ask whether they want to “take revenge” on youth offenders, or whether they would like “connected, safer communities”.

“If we want that we need to respond appropriately to support these kids into a different way of being.”

Chhour said a pilot programme would be based at a youth justice facility in Palmerston North, operating under the current law.

It will be run with 10 young people already in a youth facility, and will “feature a three-month residence stage, followed by a nine-month community phase”.

“Participants will follow a specially created curriculum and syllabus, with daily activities to support their health, learning and wellbeing. This will include military-style activities.”

The likes of Oranga Tamariki, the New Zealand Defence Force, Ministry of Justice, police, mana whenua and other community groups were helping design the programme.