Open letter launched at 10.30am on Sunday 14 July 2013

The Right Honourable John Key

Honourable Judith Collins

Honourable Anne Tolley

Honourable Chester Borrows

Parliament Buildings


Dear John, Judith, Anne and Chester

JustSpeak is a network of young people set up to speak out about criminal justice issues. We are writing to propose that 17-year-olds be included in the youth justice system.

In our criminal justice system, 17-year-olds are treated like adults. They are tried in adult courts and held in adult prisons. But 17-year-olds are not adults yet. They can’t vote, buy alcohol or tobacco, or enlist in the military without consent. The basis for these laws is that until 18, it is not appropriate to treat young people as adults they need guidance and protection.

New Zealand has a world-leading youth justice system that is specifically designed to deal with young offenders. It holds them accountable for their actions, while involving families in decisions and providing better options for rehabilitation. The evidence shows that this system leads to better outcomes for victims, offenders, their families and the wider community. It costs the taxpayer less than the adult judiciary system and means our communities are safer.

Including 17-year-olds in our youth justice system would ensure New Zealand meets its obligations under Article 1 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and bring us in line with Australia, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.

There is also a scientific basis for treating teenagers and adults differently. Recent research into the development of teenage brains suggests that decision making and cognitive functions are not fully developed. That means it is all the more important that we make youth-specific solutions like Family Group Conferences available to 17-year-olds.

This change would make a world of difference to thousands of 17-year-olds that are tried every year in adult courts and held in adult prisons. It would make a difference to 17-year-olds like Joseph. Joseph is typical of many young people in the justice system – disengaged from education from an early age, parents that abuse drugs and alcohol, living in poverty and with few safe places to stay. Joseph committed an offence while under the influence of alcohol. Without the intervention of a community organisation in court, Joseph would have been sent to Rimutaka prison on remand after missing a probation appointment.

The youth justice system better recognises the reality of 17-year-olds like Joseph, by providing appropriate options and support and ensuring that they are not exposed to adult offenders. JustSpeak is committed to bringing 17-year-olds into the youth justice system. More resourcing will be needed to support our youth workers and advocates, but the gains are worth it. Many of our members work in the criminal justice sector, so we know first hand what a difference this will make. We will be building support across New Zealand for this important and long-overdue change.

John, Judith, Anne and Chester: make a stand for our young people. Include 17-year-olds in the youth justice system.

Yours sincerely

Signed: 150+ JustSpeak Camp Attendees, and supporters