It’s Never Too Early, Never Too Late: A Discussion Paper on Preventing Youth Offending in New Zealand

This report further explores the reasons why New Zealand has a high incarceration rate.  It describes the ways young people might get on a pathway to prison, and how to prevent that happening. It argues that New Zealand should use a “developmental crime prevention” approach to reduce the numbers of young people engaging in criminal behaviour. 

Developmental crime prevention focuses on preventing the factors that contribute to children and young people ending up in the criminal justice system, and building on the factors that are shown to help young people flourish and develop a sense of belonging.

The report uses findings from current science to help people to reflect on issues related to youth justice in New Zealand. It is from the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor Sir Peter Gluckman and was written by Associate Professor Ian Lambie, Departmental Science Advisor to the Justice Sector, with input from other Departmental Science Advisors.

Key findings

  • New Zealanders need to be better at preventing children and young people engaging in criminal behaviour in the first place.
  • By the time young people are involved in the youth-justice system, a lot of damage is already evident, including:
    • High rates of mental illness
    • Heavy drinking and substance use
    • Learning difficulties
    • Trauma, abuse and family violence
    • Severely challenging behaviour
  • Factors that contribute to youth criminal behaviour include poverty, violence, childhood trauma, abuse and neglect, school failure, antisocial peers, parents in prison, undiagnosed mental and substance-use disorders, and lack of attachment to homes, communities and people.
  • Factors protecting young people from criminal behaviour include a safe place to live, trauma-informed care, support with mental health, literacy, learning support, and a network of people in our homes and communities that give kids a sense of belonging.
  • Early intervention is key, and is cost-effective. Early positive engagement can stop intergenerational cycles of trauma, offending and justice-system involvement.
  • Addressing the effects of abuse, neglect and maltreatment on children’s development and behaviour at an earlier stage costs a fraction of what it costs to imprison a person as an adult.

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