Are young dairy robbers really just naive children?

A Senior Moment with Tom O'Connor

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It is only a matter of time, and probably a very short time, before some youngster is permanently disabled or killed while trying to rob a dairy.
While the law is lenient on offenders under 16, on the assumption that they don’t fully understand the consequences of their actions, are we really dealing with naive children here? Some have all the appearances of hardened criminals and it is highly unlikely that by the time they get around to robbing a shop, it is their first offence.
Petty shoplifting and house burglaries seem to feature in the history of at least some of them in their pre-teen years. Other common denominators are a less than ideal home life, poor parenting, truancy from school, drugs and alcohol.
In a tragic case two years ago, a 14-year-old boy was jailed for six years for the manslaughter of a dairy owner during a robbery. In handing down the sentence, the judge noted that the boy’s mother had drunk and taken drugs while pregnant and he had suffered from foetal alcohol syndrome.
He had also suffered a brain injury in a pedestrian crossing accident some years earlier. The judge also noted that, had it not been for his brain injury, he was convinced the jury would have found the boy guilty of murder.
Dr Nessa Lynch and Dr Katie Bruce, members of an expert advisory panel, have asked the Government to raise the age of youth justice to include 17-year-olds and, in certain cases, 18- and 19-year-olds. They say that while 17-year-olds know the difference between right and wrong, science shows the frontal brain cortex is not fully developed until they are about 25.
That suggestion has not been well received by some in the community, particularly victims and their families, who want more police protection and harsh penalties to fit the crime regardless of age or mitigating circumstances.
That attitude is understandable when shopkeepers have been killed or seriously assaulted, families terrified, a shop smashed up and valuable stock stolen.
We have collectively failed when we have to send a 14-year-old schoolboy to jail for robbing and killing a shopkeeper.
The huge majority of our youngsters grow into good citizens, even if they falter a few times on the pathway to adulthood. Armed robbery is not a minor falter on that pathway.
There are, no doubt, many complex contributing factors which lead youngsters to commit armed robberies. One, the rest is the increased tobacco tax. With few exceptions these young robbers are looking for cigarettes either for themselves or to fuel a growing black market.
Rather than arm themselves with potentially lethal weapons to fight off the robbers, perhaps corner dairy owners should simply stop selling cigarettes.
Tom O’Connor is a retired journalist, political commentator and vice-president of Grey Power Timaru.