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Secret youth justice and Robbie Coltraine

  • August 8th, 2008

Why not reinstate concern for reputation as the first reason for not preying on your neighbours?

I’ve been concerned about the law’s devaluing of reputation as a constraint on bad behaviour since I first gave advice on  privacy issues. That was in 1993, when the Privacy Act  was going through.

So yesterday I  challenged Jim Mora’s Panel (Afternoons with Radio New Zealand) with the question. They were discussing a report of distribution by the Christchurch  police of flyers warning a neighbourhood about a 16 year old burglar. The flyer used a photo of Coltraine, to avoid rules protecting young offenders from being identified, saying:

"Robbie Coltrane is not the burglar, but imagine him aged 16 with lank, greasy hair and you have the picture."

The leaflet said the boy lived locally, travelled by bicycle and burgled houses in the area.

"He will break windows to gain entry and ransack the property, targeting electronic items, cash and jewellery,"

How did we get ourselves into such a stupid pickle? Why do we have law prohibiting the most natural and effective action open to a community watching a young person become a career criminal – that is to tell neighbours to keep a wary eye on him, at the same time telling him that crime will no longer pay for him?

How nutty it is to prevent the neighbours from protecting his victims and showing those tempted to imitate him that  it will not be a successful way to spend a life?

There is no evidence that abolishing shame for youth offending (which is the real, though possibly unintended effect of privacy and name suppression in Youth Justice) has improved any outcomes.

Shame is the basis of most cultures’ informal sanctions for bad behaviour. Shame (whakaama in Maori) was the primary foundation of Polynesian responses to offending.

The anointed who’ve run criminal justice policy often pay lip service to multi-culturalism. They afflict prisoners with "cultural affirmation" programmes. But the falsity of their "respect" shows in their rejection of any genuine return to effective traditional beliefs about offending, and how to deal with it.

Instead, to avoid stigmatising a guilty threat to the community who had thoroughly earned his stigma, we risk stigmatising a whole bunch of look alikes (not to mention Mr Coltraine).

We should not be surprised at the huge pressure for more punitive formal processes, when we’ve deliberately nobbled the first line of defense of all healthy communities. 

"Fresh Start" and other expensive programmes are necessary to deal with the youth crime wave. But perhaps there would not be such a wave if we had not had years of government collusion with offenders and their families to protect kids from the reputation consequences of the harm they inflict on others.

It’s no surprise that the kids get the message that the community is not serious when it says it will not tolerate predators.


  • jcuknz
  • August 9th, 2008
  • 8:37 am

I’m sure that if we had corporal puniushment in schools instead of the wimpish attitude of the teaching profession these days there would be a lot less trouble around.

  • Whizzer
  • August 10th, 2008
  • 11:25 pm

Not completely in agreement with previous comment on the corporal punishment by schools but certainly the anti-smacking legislation has already brought confusion to parental disciplining and we will see more anti social behaviour in the future as a result.
Quite clearly for most young people in trouble you generally only need to go to their home to find where the problem is but generally you have to dig deeper to find the solo Mum and/or missing Father were abused/had trauma as a child and the cycle is ever increasing!

  • Jim Maclean
  • August 13th, 2008
  • 3:02 pm

I am past even trying to pursuade the present authorities to change this sort of lunacy. Bring on the general election!

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