Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

< Columns

Who is Responsible for Young Offenders?


At first reading, a front-page story in the New Zealand Herald on 13 March was bizarre. A group of severely intellectually limited teenagers, with little understanding of the law, have been pleading to the Justice Select Committee not to pass a bill dealing with ram raids that enables 12 and 13 year-old offenders to be charged in courts. One submitter declared that young offenders in state care would feel "under attack" by the bill. The measures were not going to be "good for our rangatahi and tamariki," said another. A third young Maori who admitted to coming from a violent, drug-ridden home, implored MPs to address the causes of youth offending. "I really beg you to consider what you are doing, you are punishing us for your generation's mistakes".

No hint of contrition from the submitters, nor understanding that ram raids by offenders of any age are hugely destructive of others' property and livelihoods, and have led to the deaths of innocent people. Worse, the submitters argued it's not the offenders who caused the mayhem; it's the rest of us who obey the law and want the young thugs in their balaclavas and stolen cars taken off the streets and delivered a salutary lesson about the standards that society expects of them.

And yet, if one overlooks the complete unwillingness to admit wrong which, I admit, is pretty hard to do, there is an element of truth in the assertion that our generation made key mistakes that underpin the mounting crime spree amongst today's adolescents. In a mistaken belief, developing from the 1950s onwards, that the best thing society could do to assist the disadvantaged was to give them money and help with housing, my generation and subsequent ones, eventually created a world bereft of the basic need all people have to look after themselves. Instead, we created a huge sense of entitlement. "The world owes us a living" seems to be today's catch-cry. Sir Apirana Ngata predicted, Maori would be particularly susceptible to such a message and likely to skimp on education and hard work, succumbing instead to a world of idleness, boredom, and eventually mayhem.

At first, state assistance for young unmarried mothers carried with it a requirement that the father of her child be named. He was deemed a "Liable Parent" and expected to contribute towards his child's mother's Domestic Purposes Benefit. The money and services made available to the mother were to enable her to care for her child. If she produced another child, usually from another partner, she received more money with the same expectations that that father would contribute to her new child. If the mother had a live-in partner her DPB would be stopped. The partner would be responsible for contributing to the household he shared. But it became a bureaucratic nightmare. The state could not impose prudence and responsibility on people who had none of either.

Slowly, the punitive aspects surrounding welfare payments fell away. "Be kind" became the fatuous watchword. Many women didn't want to name the father of a child, and fathers didn't want to be held liable. Carmel Sepuloni removed the naming requirement altogether. Checking taxpayer-supported homes for additional incomes fell into abeyance. Tom cats roamed in search of a woman with some form of state sustenance. At its best, the 21st century family was loosely wrapped. The initial DPB unit of a mother and child lacked one parent, and the child, had no father figure. Children became more accustomed to a defacto in the house who all-too-often took an unhealthy interest in his new partner's progeny. Drug-taking was more common in these households. For society as a whole, the formal marriage rate fell away, and now more than 80% of Maori babies are born to unmarried women. These days, commitment is an unknown virtue, replaced, in too many cases, by violence from mum's current bed-mate. For a child, watching unsupervised TV is a great deal more likely than being read to at night. While the law requires children to be educated, in a DPB household it means the only parent must ensure her children get to school. But if they don't, there are no sanctions. The "pay" goes on regardless. State-provided school lunches give mums even less parenting to do. Since Covid, Maori attendance rates at school have sunk to just 34%. The mother who put her best foot forward in the 1970s, more often these days adopts a "why me worry" approach.

So, when those youngsters presenting to the select committee wanted earlier generations to accept the blame for today's ram raiders and gang recruits, they had a point. Collectively, society has failed far too many young children, especially Maori, by paying easy money and expecting, despite advice, that there would be no adverse outcomes. Today's young criminals have to be apprehended; but doing no more than locking them up is no solution. There have to be alternatives that incentivise them to go straight. I don't know enough about what, precisely, David Seymour has in mind, but at least he is working on the challenge and needs encouragement. After the successful completion of driving courses and several years of trouble-free living, maybe their record could be wiped?

It's one thing to deal with today's problem youth. Much work is also needed on the welfare system to reduce the growing legions of troublemakers in the pipeline. We need sticks and carrots. First, the DPB should be stopped at two children. The "pay rise" incentive has to go. Another step relates to truanting. Long before the kids are ram-raiding they will have been skipping school, and mothers who are paid by the state to look after them must be required to ensure their kids get to school. Computers dealing with welfare payments for the young need to be "married" to truancy details which most schools can produce. Reduced benefits might well mean there's no free lunch. Iwi leaders, many of them benefiting from tax-free trusts and vocal about Maori entitlement, need to be obliged to get more involved with their dysfunctional Maori children instead of endlessly calling for more money from the rest of us. Now we are in the post-tribal settlement era Maori leaders need to show they intend to assist their tamariki and rangatahi and not just criticise non-Maori.

Whatever, it will be a long process weaning people off excessive welfare dependency. Remember, it's taken more than 50 years to get here so there is no overnight fix.