Youth Justice in Europe: Providing Developmentally Appropriate Responses to Emerging Adults in the Criminal Justice System

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Author(s): Sibella Matthews, Vincent Schiraldi, Lael Chester

Published: July 31, 2018 in the Justice Evaluation Journal

Report Intro/Brief:
“There is a growing awareness, in the United States and Europe, that emerging adults – those ages 18–25 – are a developmentally distinct group worth special treatment at the hands of the justice system. Four US states have proposed raising the age of their juvenile courts’ jurisdiction beyond age 18 within the last year, while four out of five European countries have special laws affecting emerging adults. Three European nations – Croatia, Germany, and the Netherlands – allow youth over age 18 to be sanctioned in the same manner as younger youth in the juvenile justice system, including the possibility of being housed in juvenile facilities. In March 2018, the Columbia University Justice Lab sponsored an educational delegation of 20 elected and appointed officials, legal system stakeholders, service providers, and advocates to Germany to learn more about the German approach to emerging adults. In advance of that delegation, the authors in this article examined the law and practice regarding court-involved emerging adults in Croatia, Germany, and the Netherlands to glean potential lessons for US policy-makers considering a developmentally distinct approach to emerging adults in their justice systems.

As the diverse states of Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Vermont consider becoming the first US states to extend their juvenile courts’ jurisdictions beyond age 18, we examined practices in Europe, which has much more experience with developmentally distinct approaches to emerging adults, for examples of how such changes can be enacted. Croatia, Germany, and the Netherlands have extended their juvenile laws to include youth age 18 and above each in distinct ways fitting their history and culture. While those countries have distinct approaches to which courts, which facilities and at which ages emerging adults can benefit from juvenile laws and practices, they also have some commonalities worth examination by US policy-makers. These generally include (1) greater reliance on informal approaches to offending by juveniles and emerging adults; (2) higher minimum ages at which juvenile laws can be applied to children; (3) greater reliance on “educational” – or rehabilitative – approaches to youth found involved in delinquent or criminal behavior; (4) greater confidentiality protections for youth and young adults; and (5) less reliance on incarceration, either in adult or juvenile facilities, as a sanction for criminal behavior. It is appropriate for the United States to seriously consider adopting these strategies.”

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