Including 17 year olds in the youth justice system- the facts

In July Cabinet will decide whether or not to raise the age of youth justice to include 17 year olds.

This raise has been recommended by the Expert Advisory Panel[i], and Cabinet have already accepted their recommendation to increase the age of care to 18, with some support available to early 20s.

Did you know that on your 17th birthday you become an adult?

No you can’t buy alcohol or vote. But if you get into trouble you will be sentenced as an adult, go to an adult prison, and any convictions you get will stay on your record. That playground fight could cost you your future employment. As a parent you have to give your 17 year old a permission slip to go on a school trip. But if they are arrested you have no right to be present while they are questioned.

Brain science tells us that the parts of the brain that control logic and judgement are not fully developed until around 25[ii].

This is why young people engage in risk taking behaviour. They understand the difference between right and wrong, but their ability to control impulses and rationally assess consequences of their actions is poor. Young people need a different response.

Youth Court is not a soft option – it means far more options

Public safety is improved where young people get an evidence based response which addresses the causes of their offending. As well as custodial placements, intensive supervision, community work, and reparation, Youth Court Judges can order interventions that address the causes of reoffending, including drug and alcohol rehabilitation, parenting education programmes, anger management courses, and school attendance. Victims report a higher rate of satisfaction with youth justice processes because they have a real opportunity to participate[iii].

Top end offences will still be dealt with in the adult court system

A young person can be transferred to the adult system where the offending is serious or persistent and public safety is at risk. Homicide cases are always dealt with in the High Court.

The change will just mean that Police and Judges have a broader range of powers to deal with more young people

The youth system has already proved to be more effective at reducing reoffending than the adult system. It has contributed to a 71% reduction in the number of cases against 17 year olds since 2009. Recent research showed that a restorative approach is effective for 17 to 19 year olds, with a 17% lower rate of reoffending than those not receiving restorative justice[iv].

Going to adult court, and being sentenced to prison increases the chance of further offending

91% of prisoners under 20 go on to be reconvicted of an offence within 2 years of release[v].

Thousands of 17 year olds, victims and whānau would benefit every year, especially young Māori

Over half of District Court cases for 17 year olds last year involved Māori defendants[vi]. An analysis of Māori and non-Māori 17 year olds in court estimates that by the time they are 27 Māori will have been 35% more likely to have been convicted and 3.2 times more likely to have been imprisoned. Raising the age is one of the most tangible things we can do to reduce these numbers[vii].

Our youth justice system is recognised as a pioneering response for those with neurodisabilities

Around 60-90% of young people in the justice system have communication disorders[viii]. Young people with neurodisabilites are obvious candidates to access youth justice in their late teens.

The Youth Courts can cope with the additional numbers

There will up to an extra 2000 cases a year in Youth Court if 17 year olds are included. The Youth Court is currently dealing with 3100 fewer cases (and 2300 fewer young people) than it was in 2009[ix], and with the same number of Judges. So now is the perfect time to extend the youth justice system as we have the capacity to do so.

Other countries are ahead of us on this issue

New Zealand is trailing European countries and most American and Australian states. North Carolina and Texas estimate annual benefits of including 17 year olds of $123m and $89m respectively, realised over 35 years due to at least a 10% reduction in reoffending[x][xi]. In New York there are plans to increase the age to 24. Our once world-leading youth justice system needs to up its game.

What are the differences between the adult and youth systems?


Written by Dr Nessa Lynch, Victoria University and Dr Katie Bruce, JustSpeak



[i] Modernising Child, Youth and Family Expert Panel (2015) Expert Report on the Modernisation of CYF, p 97

[ii] K Monahan et al. (2013) “Psychological (im)maturity from adolescence-limited and persisting antisocial behaviour” 25 Development and Psychopathology 1093

[iii] Lynch, N. (2013) “Contrasts in Tolerance” in a Single Jurisdiction: The Case of New Zealand International Criminal Justice Review vol. 23 no. 3 217-232

[iv] Ministry of Justice (2014) Reoffending Analysis for Restorative Justice Cases: 2008-2011

[v] Department of Corrections Reconviction patterns of released prisoners: A 60-months follow-up analysis (2009)

[vi] Ministry of Justice (2016)

[vii] Ministry of Justice (2016)

[viii] Hughes, N., Williams, H., Chitsabean, P., Davies, R. & Mounce, L. (2012). Nobody made the connection: The prevalence of neurodisability in young people who offend. London: Office of the Children’s Commissioner.

[ix] Ministry of Justice (2016)

[x] Henrichson, C., & Levshin, V. (2011). Cost-benefit analysis of raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction in North Carolina. Vera Institute of Justice.

[xi] Deitch, M., Breeden, R., & Weingarten, R. (2012). Seventeen, Going on Eighteen: An Operational and Fiscal Analysis of a Proposal to Raise the Age of Juvenile Jurisdiction in Texas. Am. J. Crim. L.40, 1.