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ACT's plan for 17 year olds to be treated as adults out of touch - advocate

45247047 - sad teenager near the brick wall of the old house
The punitive approach ignores the backgrounds and traumas some young offenders experience, an advocate says. File photo Photo: sabphoto/123RF

An advocate for children in care, who has experienced abuse in care himself, says the ACT party's youth justice policy lacks empathy and is out of touch with the realities of young people in Aotearoa.

The ACT Party yesterday announced that it will put 17 year olds back into the adult justice system, if it is part of a government after the election.

Currently, 17 year olds are tried in the youth courts for all but the most serious offences, such as murder, manslaughter, sexual assaults, aggravated robbery, arson, or serious assaults.

The lifting of the youth justice age to 18 was instigated by the National government in 2016, and supported by ACT at the time.

ACT Party leader David Seymour.
ACT Party leader David Seymour. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

However, leader David Seymour now says that was a mistake and is vowing to reverse it.

VOYCE - Whakarongomai Mai's national care experience lead Tupua Urlich, who experienced physical and mental abuse during his 12 years in care, said ACT's policy felt like a "slap in the face".

Urlich said the punitive approach disregarded the backgrounds and traumas which young offenders might have been through.

"We understand how hard life can be when the adults in your life and the state don't value you, don't value your safety, traumatise you and they dump you at 17 years old to try and figure out your own way in the world.

"And now we're talking about ACT coming through and making this time less forgiving, less humane and not taking into account people's background," he said.

Urlich said incarceration will cause more harm.

"You place young people in these environments at a young age, with a background of trauma, that is the only space where they're going to develop relationships ... when they get out of prison they're going to fall back on those people, and it's called a university of crime for a reason.

"All ACT wants to do is to push all the troubled young people into that environment ... and keep discriminating, keep pointing the finger but not put any effort into real solutions that are going to lead to effective change in the lives of people who need it," he said.

Urlich added that putting young people in an adult court setting would stop them from sharing openly about factors that led to the offending.

Meanwhile, the Salvation Army said it was strongly opposed to ACT's policy which it described as a "backward step".

Its social policy and parliamentary unit lead Ian Hutson said ACT's policy would see young people unnecessarily criminalised for lower level offences.

Hutson said he was concerned that politics was getting in the way of evidence-based approaches to tackling crime.

"Despite some of the high profile acts that we've seen in recent times, there is over the last 10 years a dropping of youth crime, so to say it's not working... I would think that's not correct," he said.

Police data showed youth crime was down 2 percent year-on-year in 2022, although there were big increases in South Auckland and Canterbury.