Youth Offending: Is it About Justice or Health?

By Sue Buckley

A recent report from the Children’s Commissioner for England1 investigating undiagnosed neurodevelopment conditions amongst young people in custody found that these young people experienced higher rates of a range of neurodevelopmental disorders than the general population of young people. These conditions included: generalised learning disability, specific reading difficulties, impaired language skills, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder, traumatic brain injury, epilepsy and foetal alcohol syndrome disorder. The report notes, however, that children who have such conditions may exhibit few or no overt signs of brain damage or difficulties in managing their feelings, but may lack the language to understand or describe their feelings or symptoms, which can easily spill out into difficult behaviour.

Evidence from New Zealand studies indicates that young people in custody here experience similar difficulties. One study found that the occurrence of mental health issues (conduct disorder, mood disorders, psychosis, post-traumatic stress disorder) for males in a youth justice facility was 56 percent, and was higher for females at 73 percent.2 For young people in secure Child, Youth and Family (CYF) residences it has been found that 49 percent report ‘worrying a lot about things,’ 37 percent had four or more somatic symptoms (emotional distress associated with unexplained physical symptoms), 25 percent reported depressive symptoms, 49 percent reported feeling anger and irritability, 30 percent had self-harmed, and 20 percent had attempted to end their life. In addition, almost one-half (44 percent) of these young people had poor access to dental health care, while 19 percent failed a hearing screening test, and 24 percent failed their vision screening test.3 Another New Zealand study of a sample of youth offenders in prison found 53 percent with symptoms of ADHD4, and a study of 204 young people admitted to youth justice secure residences found most young people (66 percent) had alcohol/drug issues, 38 percent experienced difficulty with anger/irritability, 30 percent were depressed/anxious, 30 percent reported somatic complaints, 24 percent reported thought disturbance (only among boys), and 17 percent experienced suicidal ideation.5

A review of literature undertaken in the New Zealand by The Werry Centre concluded that “prevalence rates of mental health issues of between 40% and 60% highlight that mental health and AoD [alcohol and other drug] issues cannot be ignored in the Youth Offending population. The incidence of psychiatric disorders and AoD issues are even more pronounced among those youth who are detained or incarcerated.”6 In addition, US data indicates that youth offenders in custody are up to four times more likely to complete a suicide than young people in the general population.7

There are also high recidivism rates for young offenders. Offenders who begin offending during their teenage years are more likely to become persistent offenders, particularly if their initial offending results in a prison sentence. In a study of reconviction rates for a New Zealand cohort of released prisoners, it was found that those under 20 had a reconviction rate of 88 percent and a reimprisonment rate of 71 percent within 60 months. Released prisoners in the under 20 age-group were twice as likely to return to prison as those aged over 40 years.8

In New Zealand, the Youth Justice system, and particularly its use of family group conferences, takes a ‘restorative’ approach to offending by young people, that is, one which seeks a balance between the welfare and justice models of youth justice. The welfare model of youth justice views young people’s offending as primarily a consequence of their background and environments; the focus is on the care and protection of the young person.

The justice model focuses on the offence, advocating for the victim, and for accountability and punishment that reflects the severity of the offence. Critics of the welfare model argue that due process and legal rights may be overlooked and that children and young people, and their families, can experience unwarranted intrusions into, or control over their lives. Critics of the justice approach argue that it ignores the social or environmental contribution to criminal behaviour, that children and young people particularly may not understand court processes, and that focusing on the offence alone can create injustice. New Zealand’s restorative model focuses on the offender accepting responsibility for their crime and on restitution for the victim; the overall intention is concerned with restoring the relationship between the offender and the community.

Among the principles of the New Zealand restorative model are that young people should be diverted from the formal criminal justice system where possible, and that children and young people who commit offences should be kept in the community, unless public safety is an issue. New Zealand’s model for youth justice is rightly praised as an innovative model in that: “the rights and needs of indigenous people were to be taken into account; families were to be central to all the decision-making processes involving their children; young people themselves were to have a say in how their offending should be responded to; victims were to be given a role in negotiations over possible penalties for juvenile offenders; and the model of decision-making advocated was to be by group consensus”.9

However, the high prevalence of a range of neurodevelopmental disorders amongst young prisoners indicates that more needs to be done in the way of supporting the mental health needs of young prisoners and, even more importantly, supporting the health needs of young people before they even get to prison. The very high rates of recidivism for young offenders indicate that having once been in prison, they are very likely to go back. A review of evidence relating to the assessment and treatment of youth with mental health and/or AoD issues concluded: “A reoccurring theme in the literature is that the juvenile justice system is not adequately equipped to meet the needs of youth with mental health and/or AoD issues. Improvement is needed in: coordination of services; availability of trained or specialist staff; integration of services; encouraging community support for success; effective services; and leadership structures”.10 The same review concluded that “The focus on effective programmes and interventions has tended to focus on offending rather than their mental health issues. Further research is needed to increase the recognition of the mental health and/or AoD needs of youth offenders and to both [sic] inform intervention design and service development”.11

While we have different histories and social systems, Norway (with a population of 5.26 million) appears to manage youth offending in ways that avoid imprisonment. It is part of government policy there that no one under 18 years should be imprisoned and there has been a concerted effort to promote the “the mental, physical and social development of young offenders. Imprisonment is viewed as a ‘last resort’ and in January 2015, there were only three young persons (all 17-years old) held in detention”12. In New Zealand 540 young people on average are admitted to secure youth justice residences each year (this figure does not represent the total number in residences at any one time; there are only around 200 ‘beds’ in youth residences and 100 ‘beds’ in youth units in prisons). While Norway has a different approach to justice generally, and a long history of focusing on child welfare, we could perhaps learn from the Norwegian experience where the emphasis is on the wellbeing of the child/young person and on crime prevention rather than crime control, so that all interventions are supportive in nature.13

While there is much to recommend New Zealand’s restorative justice model – its focus on the restoration of the offender with their community, and its effectiveness in reducing the need for formal courts and punitive measures, it has been “less successful in achieving goals of enhancing the wellbeing of the young people who enter the system”.14

The links between mental health disorder, impoverished or abusive environments, substance abuse, and youth antisocial behaviour are well-established. Critically, the links can function both ways – a young person who has experienced abuse which has led to their involvement in youth justice is also more likely to develop a mental health disorder. Considering the high prevalence of a range of mental health, alcohol and drug issues, and learning, language and reading disabilities amongst the young offender population, a greater focus on young offenders’ health needs would be not only compassionate but also beneficial and likely to lead to improved outcomes.

Seeing youth offending as a health rather than a justice issue would have implications for policy and practice. But it would arguably lead to smaller numbers of incarcerated youth and better end results for our young people and our society.

Dr Sue Buckley is a social science researcher and works for The Nathaniel Centre.



  1. Hughes, Nathan. "Nobody made the connection: The prevalence of neurodisability in young people who offend." (2012).
  2. The Werry Centre. A Literature Review: mental health and alcohol and other drug screening, assessment and treatment for Youth Justice populations [Internet], P. 20. 2009 Feb. Available from:
  3. Lambie, I; Krynen, A; Best C. Youth Justice Secure Residences: A report on the international evidence to guide best practice and service delivery. Wellington: Ministry of Social Development, May 2016.
  4. Ludbrook, M. Youth Therapeutic Programmes. A Literature Review. Wellington: Department of Corrections, 2012.
  5. Lambie et al., ibid., p. 23.
  6. The Werry Centre, ibid., P. 26.
  7. Ibid., p. 57.
  8. Ludbrook, ibid., p. 3.
  9. Maxwell, Gabrielle, and Allison Morris. "Youth justice in New Zealand: Restorative justice in practice?" Journal of Social Issues 62.2 (2006), p.243.
  10. The Werry Centre, op.cit., p. 84.
  11. Ibid., p.75.
  12. Winterdyk, John, Georgios A. Antonopoulos, and Ray Corrado. "Reflections on Norway’s juvenile justice model: A comparative context." Crime Prevention and Community Safety 18.2 (2016), p. 111.
  13. Ibid., p.107.
  14. Maxwell et al., p.257.