The National Party is ignoring the weight of the evidence against forced, military-style camps for young offenders, according to a lawyer who has represented survivors of some of New Zealand’s worst cases of abuse in state welfare.
Amanda Hill KC said forcing children into boot camps would not deter them from re-offending and could lead to more situations where they would be neglected or abused.
National police spokesman Mark Mitchell said boot camps have the potential to transform the lives of young people.
Mitchell pointed to the success of the Defense Forces’ Limited Service Volunteer courses, which spent six weeks in military camps teaching 18- to 24-year-olds discipline and building self-esteem.
But Hill said National’s model differs from the LSV program in several key ways:
It took much longer – up to a year instead of six weeks; its participants could be younger at 15 to 17; and most importantly, young offenders would be pushed into the program rather than volunteering for it.
“It’s been going on for decades, this idea that we’re just going to punish harder and stop crime, that’s misplaced — it doesn’t.”
Hill had presented evidence on behalf of many survivors of Whakapakari, a boot camp-style program on Great Barrier Island to which children, youth and families sent “difficult” youth.
Many of these youths were abused by employees or roommates.
Hill said Whakapakari met the criteria for a cult with its charismatic leader, hierarchical structure, isolation from the outside world and silence from anyone who spoke up.
Hill said military-style camps like the LSV programs could work, but only if participants chose to be there.
“If you’re there for punishment, people see you as needing to be punished.
“That makes you less than; it makes you a target.
“People feel entitled to treat you badly, and that’s when things start to go wrong.”
Hill said the National Party needs to reassess its plans in the face of historic abuses at state institutions like Whakapakari.
But some of those who had taken LSV courses hoped the boot camp model could work if extended to young offenders.
Byron Gardner dropped out of high school before he could sit his 13th grade exams.
He said the course at the Whenuapai base in Auckland gave him a sense of accomplishment he couldn’t find in the classroom.
“All the students I’ve seen coming and going from there have changed drastically from being rather naughty, antisocial kids to well-off and mature kids.”
Gardner transferred from LSV to another military preparation program while many of his colleagues went straight to work.
He said although the courses are optional, some people needed an extra boost to be successful.
Andrew Rodwell was a former patron of the LSV course which was run from Burnham Military Camp in Canterbury.
The program targeted those at risk of long-term unemployment and put them through basic military training.
However, Rodwell said that for some trainees it was the basic life skills that made the biggest impact.
“Some of them were terribly disadvantaged children.
“On the first day, they were shown their dormitories.
“One kid… was asked if they could make a bed and they said no, they didn’t know how to make a bed.
“The instructor said, ‘Were you not shown?’ and the answer was, ‘No, I’ve never actually had a bed’.”
Rodwell said the camp was life-changing for its young participants.
“I saw 125 kids get off a line of buses on the first day that had an attitude.
“Six weeks later, the majority of the kids I spoke to didn’t want to go.”
Hill said courses like LSV gave young people a chance to experience the military lifestyle.
She said it wouldn’t help to add another answer to the problem of juvenile delinquency and had this message for Christopher Luxon and his party:
“Think again. Think about what you will create and perpetuate through these boot camps.”
The New Zealand Defense Force declined to comment on National’s policies.