Young People’s Knowledge and Understanding of the Youth Justice System in New Zealand: A Community Sample
New Zealand (NZ) has a separate youth justice system that is designed to be responsive towards the developmental needs of young people that have engaged in antisocial behaviour. It is therefore essential that young people are ‘Fit to Stand Trial’ when legal proceedings are brought against them. A young person can be found legally unfit on the basis of ‘mental impairment’, and whilst this is undefined it largely overlooks the impact a young person's developmental level may have on their engagement with court processes. No research has examined young people’s understanding of the justice system in NZ. However, international research has demonstrated that those 13 years and younger are almost exclusively found unfit to stand trial due to their developmental level, whereas those 16 years and older tend to be found fit to stand trial. The legal capabilities of those aged 14 to 15 years are difficult to predict given the extensive developmental changes occurring around that age. The current research aimed to address three research questions: 1) is there a relationship between age and fitness to stand trial, 2) is there a relationship between IQ and fitness to stand trial, and 3) how does NZ research compare to international literature. Participants aged 13 to 18 were recruited from six schools around NZ (n = 89). They were interviewed using a semi-structured interview tool that was designed for this study to assess young people’s understanding of the justice process and fitness-related abilities. A brief measure of participant IQ was also taken. It was found that fitness-related abilities, such as knowledge and understanding, were positively associated with age and IQ, such that older participants and those with higher IQ scores performed better on this semi-structured interview. Attending a high decile school, and being female was also predictive of better performance. These findings indicate that developmental level—as indicated by age and IQ—impacts young people’s understanding and participation in the justice system. Therefore, the current legislative response to young people who offend does not sufficiently recognise the impact of a young person’s developmental capabilities.