The first time I visited a prison, I was 12 years old. I went with my father and a group of musicians to hold a church service for the inmates.

We repeated the service in various parts of the prison, and in the minimum security wing I was allowed to sit and talk with the men after church.  I sat down next to a Māori man, let’s call him Bill. Not having been told it was impolite to do so, I asked Bill what he had done to end up in prison.

He told me he was in prison for driving without a license. I was shocked. Surely you couldn’t go to prison for driving without a licence?

“You can if you do it often enough,” he explained.

Bill had been in prison before, more than once. The first time he’d been too young, he told me, to realise prison wasn’t cool. Each time he got out he’d been determined not to do anything that would land him back inside, and every time he’d failed. It was hard to find a job, for example, that didn’t require him to drive. Eventually, he would get pulled over, found to be driving without a licence and sent back to prison.

Even as a 12 year old I could see Bill was stuck in a vicious cycle.

I also understood, even then, that Bill was more likely than my dad to be pulled over, to have his licence checked.

“Next time I get out, I’m going to get a bike,” he explained, “I’ll have a way to get to work and to visit my kids, and I won’t end up back in here.”

Over the past 30 years, I’ve often wondered whether Bill got that bike, and whether he managed – against the odds – to stay out of prison for good.

So what does Bill have to do with innovation?

To be honest, I’m wary of the way we talk about innovation. In a country where discrimination remains entrenched, inequality is growing, and the odds of people like Bill altering the course of their lives in any significant way are low, the fact that we describe something like Uber as ‘innovative’ seems, at best, silly and, at worst, downright cynical.

To be fair on innovation, all it claims to be is “something new or different”, which I concede is a definition even Uber could meet. My beef isn’t really with innovation, my beef is with the fact that we’re so keen to talk about things that are “new and different” that we often skim over history, deny reality and ignore complexity.

So here’s a dose of reality: research carried out in New Zealand between 2002 and 2007 showed a considerably higher rate of re-imprisonment for Māori offenders (55%) than for NZ Europeans (45%) and Pacific offenders (36%). Analysis of the variables contributing to this disparity pointed to the fact that:

“Maori offenders as a group tend on average to be younger than Europeans”[i].

Likewise, when considering the disproportionate number of Māori in prison, analysts emphasised the impact of “the very large numbers of young Māori entering the criminal justice system for the first time each year.”[ii]

Reflecting on this I thought about Bill, and looked up rates of youth charged with traffic and vehicle regulatory offences in New Zealand, by ethnicity.

The first thing worth noting about this graph is that in 2007 the number of young Māori people in New Zealand being charged with traffic and vehicle offences in New Zealand was equal to the number of Pakeha young people being charged – despite Māori making up only 24% of the total youth population, compared to 72% Pakeha.[iii]

But perhaps you noticed something else about this graph? Did you see the sudden drop in youth being charged with traffic and vehicle offences after 2008? What’s that about?

Well, something genuinely innovative happened in New Zealand in 2002, something that may well lie behind this sudden drop-off.

In 2002, the Youth Offending Strategy was launched, building on the changes implemented by The Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act 1989, which laid the foundation for a genuinely innovative approach to young people who offend.

“[T]he New Zealand system represented the first legislated example of a move towards a restorative justice approach to offending which recognises and seeks the participation of all involved in the offending and focuses on repairing harm, reintegrating offenders, and restoring the balance within the community affected by the offence.”[iv]

In other words, in 2002 New Zealand rolled out a new approach to children and young people who commit criminal offences. More than ten years later, apprehension rates for children and young people have fallen.

I’d like to stop for a moment to let you take that in, because it’s not something you’ll hear very often in the news: the number of young people being charged with criminal offences in New Zealand has dropped over the past two decades.

In 2007, 5067 young people were charged in New Zealand courts – that equates to 100 out of every 10,000 young people in our country. By 2012 that number had reduced to 3016, or 74 out of every 10,000. This is the lowest rate in 20 years.[v]

This is very good news. This is innovation doing what it’s supposed to: breaking old, entrenched patterns; turning things around; opening up new possibilities.

But the news is not all good. Over that same period, disparities in youth justice outcomes for Māori have increased, and apprehension rates for Māori children and young people remain four to five times higher than for non‐Māori.[vi]

This increase in disparities is driven by greater improvement in outcomes for non-Māori youth, rather than by a worsening of outcomes for Māori. In fact, the number of Māori youth charged in court has dropped as well, but at a much smaller rate than for Pakeha or Pasifika youth.

Number of Youth Charged

The number of youth charged in court has decreased for all major age and ethnic groups

So, what next?

Smarter people than me have reviewed all this data, and much more, and concluded that there are at least three key areas for further innovation in our youth justice system:

  1. Deepen engagement with family, whānau, and communities.
  2. Improve the data available to inform frontline decision‐making in the youth justice system.
  3. Extend access to the youth justice system to young people aged up to 21 years.

Each of these warrants its own exploration, but since the official Youth Crime Action Plan focuses largely on the first and second of these, I’m going to close with an argument in favour of the third.

Currently, children aged up to 16 years can be dealt with by the Youth Courts, but the government is looking at a plan to extend this to young offenders as old as 19.

Our youth justice system is not only innovative. It also appears to be achieving at least some of the changes it was created to achieve.

For example, the number of children and young people given an order in court in New Zealand has dropped for all ethnic groups since 2008.


For anyone concerned that children and young people who offend are being let off too lightly, two thoughts:

  1. The Youth Court system has allowed the community, including the family and the victim, to play a role in holding the young person to account in a way that is meaningful to them.[vii]
  2. Youth Courts have also exercised their power to apply adult sentences in serious cases in a small by significant number of cases, as shown in this graph.

New Zealand youth given an order in court by ethnicity:


All over the world, people are studying our youth justice system, wondering how they might be able to replicate some of these positive outcomes for themselves. Without ignoring the very significant areas for improvement, this is the kind of innovation we should be celebrating.

This is also the kind of innovation we should be extending, specifically by lifting the age of access to Youth Courts in New Zealand to at least 19 years.


Marianne Elliott is Director of Strategy and Story for ActionStation – a movement to reignite participation in our democracy and restore ‘people power’ by building a community of active citizens and facilitating collective action for progressive change. ActionStation is an independent, member-led not-for-profit organisation representing over 100,000 New Zealanders holding power to account, standing for human rights, a healthy environment, transparent democracy and economic fairness.

Marianne’s background is varied – trained as a human rights lawyer, she worked in Timor-Leste, the Gaza Strip and Afghanistan before returning to New Zealand in 2008. She is also the author of Zen Under Fire, a memoir about her work in Afghanistan, and co-owner of an organic Mexican restaurant in Wellington.





[v]  Youth Crime Action Plan, Ministry of Justice, 2013 p12

[vi] Youth Crime Action Plan, Ministry of Justice, 2013


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