Retail crime: Luxon reaffirms faith in boot camps to curb youth reoffending


As youth offending surges, the government is placing its faith in military-style boot camps to tackle retail crime (Photo supplied)

Venu Menon
Wellington, June 25,2024

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon has made an impassioned pitch in support of his government’s plan to launch military-style academies for young serious offenders.

Speaking to the media after his weekly Cabinet meeting in Wellington on Monday, June 24, Luxon said the military-style camps “will be operational in November.”

But the problem appears to be outpacing the solution, with retail crime, especially in Auckland, outstripping government initiatives to contain it.

The frustration was apparent in the prime minister’s reaction to a query on Sunday’s hammer attack on an Auckland store owner.

“It’s disgusting behaviour. I’m sick of it. The public is sick of it. I happened to visit that store. I know Gurdeep [Gurdeep Singh Luther] and his family who own that store. It wasn’t that long ago that I was shaking his hand in his store for quite a while. And then to see him being hit by a hammer in the way that he has, with a fractured skull and now in hospital.”

The government appears to be overwhelmed by the sheer persistence and tenacity of the retail crime wave, and hamstrung by the underage status of the offenders and the infirmity of the law in cracking down on youth offenders, despite the threat to life and person posed to the victims.

Given these constraints, the government is compelled to look for remedies outside the statute to check retail crime, and is persisting with boot camps as a solution that has been previously tested and found wanting.

It is also a solution that is in search of a matching policy lexicon that downplays the punitive and highlights rehabilitation.

Luxon conveys an air of improvising when he says the academies are “three-month placements. They [young offenders] are nine months out in the community.”

He adds: “One of the things we understand is that we know we have to make the transition. We can get great results with kids in residential programmes, when we put them back into the community, back into their environments, that’s when they actually return back to the life that they’re in.”

Young offenders are “taken out of their community so that they don’t cause harm in the community,” with the aim of making “powerful, targeted interventions in these young people’s lives and giving them the very best start to turn their lives around.”

The prime minister, anticipating the push-back to his line of thinking, is prepared to have “that intellectual conversation all day long about whether it will work or not.” He is resolved to “try something different.”

The push-back from Opposition parties and youth justice advocacy groups is focused on the new Young Serious Offender category that covers offenders aged 14 to 17, who could end up in the proposed boot camps.

The government is clearly stumbling over fine distinctions, with Children’s Minister Karen Chhour under pressure to explain the non-punitive thrust of the initiative.

“I don’t necessarily see it as a punishment,” she says. “I actually see it as the biggest support network they’ll probably ever have, actually putting the resources behind them, to enable them to be the best they can be.”

That appears to be borne out by the pilot programme which is designed by Oranga Tamariki, police, the Defence Force, the Ministry of Justice, local mana whenua, and sundry community groups.

But Opposition opinion, voiced by Green and Labour, still see a punitive element in boot camps that will perpetuate the crime cycle, while youth advocacy groups want a greater involvement of communities in the search for a lasting solution to youth reoffending.

Police numbers are set to go up in Auckland City from July 1, and community patrols will be in place in towns and cities across the country over the next two years. Three Strikes, which targets repeat offenders, is being reinstated.

All of this forms part of the law-and-order package of measures the government will unroll in coming months.

Boot camps trace their genesis to the Military-style Activity Camp Programme or MAC Programme, which ran between 2010 and 2016 and yielded mixed results.

It is worth noting the move may not meet the expectations of dairy and business owners’ associations who have lobbied for harsher penalties for youth offenders.

Nevertheless, Deputy PM and New Zealand First leader Winston Peters summed it up when he told Parliament in March:

“We believe, as punanga and all those great Maori leaders believe, that the military can transform and change people’s lives and make them law abiding at the same time.”

Venu Menon is an Indian Newslink reporter based in Wellington

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