Young peoples understanding of the Youth Justice System in New Zealand

Ms Phillippa Dean1, Dr Clare-Ann Fortune1

1Victoria University Of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand


Youth justice is one of the most highly disputed legal issues in the Western world. It is a complex, and often foreign environment that is full of jargon, rules and expectations. These frequently exceed the developmental capacities of adolescents, and complicate their interaction with the justice system.

The ever-expanding literature base has established adolescence as a sustained period of development, and a transitional period when risks of engagements in criminal behaviours are greatest. The adolescents’ development affects their capacity for a range of tasks including control and decision making with respect to crime, their culpability for the alleged offending and their ability to participate in youth justice procedures. This psychological (im)maturity requires consideration as youth interact with the youth justice system.

Internationally, research has demonstrated that adolescents have a minimal foundation of knowledge and reduced level of competency regarding the youth justice system. However, no research examining this issue has occurred in the New Zealand context. Thus, the understanding and reasoning capacities of adolescents in New Zealand are not currently known. It is unknown, therefore, if New Zealand’s current Youth Justice System sufficiently accounts for their developmental capacities.

A semi-structured interview was designed to examine adolescent’s competency to stand trial and piloted on a community sample of New Zealand young people aged 12-18 years. This tool assessed for adolescent’s 1) general understanding of the youth justice system, 2) understanding of possible consequences, 3) ability to communicate with their counsel, and 4) their reasoning and decision making around youth justice scenarios. Measures of cognitive ability and emotion regulation were also taken. Results from this study will be presented and compared to international research. Additionally, recommendations for making changes that accommodate the developmental level of adolescents, and improve their understanding and capacity to interact with the justice system will be discussed.


Phillippa Dean completed a Bachelor of Science majoring in Psychology through the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand.  Following this she moved to Victoria University of Wellington to undertake a Masters of Science in Forensic Psychology. Working with those that are disadvantaged through the justice system, particularly adolescents and young people, has been Phillippa’s area of interest and subsequent research focus throughout her university career.

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