The connection between youth offending and drug and alcohol use cannot be denied. Drugs and alcohol are part of the personal stories of most young offenders in New Zealand. International criminological and drug literature supports the view that those young people who use illicit drugs are more likely to engage in criminal activity.
Further investigations show a clear link between the age at which a young a person first tries marijuana and the likelihood that they will engage in an antisocial behaviour 2 Worryingly, the age at which young people in New Zealand are using cannabis for the first time is dropping. Drugs, alcohol, and young offenders His Honour Judge John Walker estimates that 80% of young people appearing in the Youth Court have alcohol or drug dependency or abuse issues that are connected with their offending.
Judge Walker believes that, by the time these 15 and 16 year olds come to court, their dependency is already well established, with many presenting histories of drug and alcohol use that started when they were as young as 10 years old. These young people are often in households where drug and alcohol use is a normal part of life; where parents and siblings are responsible for supplying teenagers with alcohol and drugs and modelling behaviour and attitudes that promote binge drinking and substance abuse.
Judge Walker labels drug and alcohol problems amongst young offenders as an underlying cause of offending. In his view, responding to this issue in order to reduce youth crime requires a multidisciplinary, interagency, whole of community attack! Cannabis is also widely used by young offenders appearing in the New Zealand Youth Court.
There is evidence of new hybrid strains of cannabis are appearing, which, together with new growing techniques, and the reinvigoration of sensemilla,12 has meant a significant increase in the potency of this drug. Also, the age at which cannabis is first used in the population is dropping, and the numbers of young people aged 13 to 16 using cannabis for the first time is increasing. Fortunately, methamphetamine is not yet a widespread problem facing the Youth Court. ‘P’ has been seen only sporadically in the Youth Court thus far, and it is our view that any increase in young people using the drug would signal a major social catastrophe.
The Youth Court response One significant Youth Court initiative designed specifically to address the effects of drugs and alcohol on the process of youth justice, is the Christchurch Youth Drug Court. This is a specialist court, based on principles of therapeutic jurisprudence, and designed to enhance the opportunities for collaborative multi-agency work with young offenders. Young people with moderate to serious substance issues are screened by on-site specialists, and referred to the Youth Drug Court.
The Drug Court Judge spends more time with the young person in each Court appointment, and takes a more active role in monitoring the young person’s progress through their treatment and community work plans. The Court has shown good results in terms of reduced reoffending, and reduced drug and alcohol use.
The use and abuse of drugs and alcohol is a major issue for the majority of young people appearing Court. While the link between drugs and offending is difficult and not always causal in an obvious way, the use of illegal drugs like cannabis is a nonnegotiable source of concern for the youth Court.
For the Youth Court, the debate between “harm minimisation” and “total abstinence” is rather “academic”. Youth Court judges cannot resile from their duty to eliminate illegal drug use by young people, and to assist in the elimination of the illegal supply of alcohol to young people by family and friends. Beyond that, our mission to oversee joint processes of accountability, restoration and rehabilitation for each young person will only succeed if comprehensive, youth specific drug and alcohol services are made more widely available.
If the enacting of healthy drug laws were enough to ensure that dependent young people received all the treatment they needed to return to society in a positive way, then the Youth Court could rightly be seen as the last word in therapeutic jurisprudence. The reality is, however, that the Court desperately needs the support of other agencies and community providers to give young offenders the best chance of not completing the graduation to the adult courts.