Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft says the minimum age of criminal responsibility needs to rise from 10 to 14.
It comes after a report, released today by his office, has identified deficiencies in the response to children who offend and says immediate improvements must take place.
New Zealand has a specialised child offender system for dealing with children aged 10 to 13 who offend but Becroft says the minimum age of 10 is far too low.
"The minimum age of criminal responsibility should be 14, consistent with the recommendations from the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child,” he says.
Criminal response doesn’t work
Becroft says, “Most children who offend come from backgrounds of trauma and disadvantage. A criminal response to their situation simply does not work. They should be dealt with by the child offender system reformed as described in this report.”
The report says too many children are not getting the kind of support that might stop their offending. Some become serious youth offenders as 14 to 17-year olds and are dealt with in the youth justice system. Some become adult criminals.
"This [proposed] system takes a welfare rather than a criminal justice approach. It looks at children's offending as something reflecting a context where parents and families don't have the support and resources to raise their children safely," the commissioner says.
"Despite much talk about reducing crime and prison numbers, it's ironic that a very effective long-term solution, a focus on reducing child offending, has not been prioritised. We are missing a critical opportunity for constructive reform."
The report notes Oranga Tamariki's services for children and families and its youth justice services need to collaborate more effectively.
“Although most children in this cohort are Māori, the office was repeatedly told culturally appropriate responses from Oranga Tamariki were poor and need to improve.”
The report also notes the present system for children who offend is too complex and poorly understood; government and community agencies need to cooperate more effectively; effective early intervention in the lives of children and their whanau is missing too often; and children with offending behaviour are too frequently disconnected from education.
Becroft says, "An effective and well-resourced system to work with children who offend and their families can do a much better job than the criminal justice system. It can provide many more options for dealing with children. It can also ensure parents and whānau have the necessary support to provide the care their children need."
"If we also raised the minimum age of criminal responsibility to 14 we could be confident that we have perhaps the best possible response for children under 14 who offend."
The report says simplification and better resourcing enabling the system to support whānau in bringing about change in these children's lives is needed badly.