Policy Briefing: Juvenile justice in Europe from risk obsession to children first progression

Policy Briefing: Juvenile justice in Europe from risk obsession to children first progression

Stephen Case and Kevin Haines (University of Swansea)

In this article, we argue that juvenile justice policy and practice across Europe in the 20th century has moved from prioritising the welfare of children who offend (putting children’s needs first) towards more justice-based approaches grounded in punishment and control (putting offenders first). Although contemporary 21st century juvenile justice has become more eclectic, integrating welfare and justice concerns with other foci such as education, restorative justice and diversion, many European countries have developed an over-riding obsession with measuring and responding to the risk that children allegedly present to themselves and others once they have offended. We will contrast the highly negative implications of risk-based juvenile justice with a positive, progressive and principled alternative approach to delivering juvenile justice known as Children First, Offenders Second.

The punitive turn – Adults doing to children in juvenile justice systems
Contemporary understandings of why children break the law and the approaches to delivering juvenile justice that follow from them are varied, dynamic and contested. They vary between European countries and between localities within these countries – shaped by a range of influences such as differing ages of criminal responsibility, shifting political climates and fluctuating socio-economic conditions. A constant across juvenile justice over time and place, however, has been the marginalisation of children by adults. Juvenile justice has traditionally been a process of adults doing to children rather than working with these children in any meaningful or participatory ways that incorporate children’s voices, views and experiences. There is a sense that once children enter ‘the system’, they must be kept in it and have their behaviour and attitudes controlled and fixed by adults.

In the 21st century, many European juvenile justice systems (most notably England and Wales), along with those in other industrialised Western countries (e.g. USA, Australia, Canada) have responded to the uncertainties and threats resulting from globalisation, economic austerity and political and media (mis)perceptions of escalating levels of juvenile crime by implementing a ‘punitive turn’ towards repressive and retributive (punishment-based) forms of juvenile justice. In this uncertain and insecure age, the question of how countries should deal with the perceived growing ‘youth crime problem’ has become a political football. Leaving aside issues with the socio-economic construction of any ‘problems’ caused by and visited upon young people across Europe, not to mention the social construction of crime statistics that constitute ‘evidence’ of these problems, the appropriateness of the question itself has not been at issue. A succession of European countries have taken for granted that crime committed by young people is an increasing problem that must be dealt with (cost) effectively without resort to the ‘failed’ welfare and justice methods of the past. The response to this assumption has been both revolutionary and alarming.

The negative obsession with risk
The ‘punitive turn’ in international juvenile justice has been evidenced and animated by the increasing popularity of the ‘Risk Factor Prevention Paradigm’ (RFPP) for responding to children who offend. The RFPP underpins a purportedly practical, straightforward and technical method of managing and controlling young people’s behavior. Juvenile justice practitioners use risk assessment tools (e.g. the popular ‘European Assessment of Risk and Needs’ instrument) to identify and quantify the ‘risk factors’ in young people’s lives (psychological, emotional, attitudinal, familial, educational, community-based, lifestyle-based) that allegedly increase the likelihood of future offending and that can then be targeted and prevented through risk-focused interventions (prioritising offence and offender characteristics).

Sometimes (far less often than supporters claim) there is an associated attempt to measure and target ‘protective factors’ that allegedly insulate young people against the effects of risk factors and prevent them from future offending and very seldom is there any focus on needs. The predominant focus is always risk. For example, the Scaled Approach in England and Wales quantifies a series of risk factors using a risk assessment instrument known as Asset, giving each young person a risk score (out of 64) which places them into a risk category (standard, enhanced, intensive). This risk category dictates (is ‘scaled’ to) the frequency, intensity and duration of the risk-focused intervention programme that the young person receives in response to their offending behavior. Such a risk-based form of juvenile justice is problematic on several levels, but these problems all boil down to one thing – presenting young people in an overwhelmingly negative way. Assessing young people’s lives in terms of risk factors is:

  • Correctionalist – aiming to correct perceived ‘deficits’ in the individual young person;
  • Responsibilising – placing the responsibility for the behavior and its associated influences/problems on the individual young person;
  • Interventionist – encouraging systems and adult practitioners to intervene and interfere in more and more aspects of young people’s lives at younger and younger ages using risk as the justification.

The RFPP encourages juvenile justice systems to understand, represent and respond to young people as negative, problematic, flawed, dangerous and risky. Young people are portrayed as offenders first (‘offender’ becomes their master status), not as children (first) who have offended as one part of their broader and more complex lives. This in turn encourages politicians, the media, the general public and even young people themselves to perceive and treat young people who offend in negative, stigmatising, marginalising and exclusionary ways (Case and Haines 2009).

The risk-based juvenile justice animated by the RFPP may be (cost) effective in its practicality, pragmatism and common-sense methods, but it is not effective in reducing offending or re-offending, nor is it positive, principled or progressive in ways that young people and the practitioners who work with them can support and engage with.

The positive progression to Children First positive youth justice
As long-standing, vociferous critics of the RFPP and long-term researchers with the young people and practitioners who work together within juvenile justice systems, we have constructed a positive, progressive, principled and pragmatic alternative to the damaging dominance of risk-based juvenile justice. Our model of positive youth justice is entitled Children First, Offenders Second (Haines and Case 2015). Despite our use of the term ‘youth’ in the preface to our model (it is preferred to ‘juvenile’ in the UK justice context), we strongly advocate for the terms ‘child’ and ‘children’ over ‘youth’ and ‘young people’. This is in line with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 designation of a child as anyone under the age of 18 years old (fitting with the 10-17 years old age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales) and its requirements for adults to offer children protection, provision and participation in accordance with their status as a ‘child’ (Haines and Case 2015).

Children First, Offenders Second (CFOS) sets out a series of evidence-based principles for positive youth justice practice. CFOS argues that the treatment of children who come into contact with juvenile justice systems and the practitioners within them should be child-friendly and child-appropriate, rather than dominated by adults deciding how to understand and respond to the diagnosed problems in children’s lives. Central to this child-friendly treatment is our advocacy of diversion from the negative, labelling and risk-obsessed, punitive excesses of formal juvenile justice systems and towards positive interventions and services that promote children’s well-being, rights, capacities, strengths and successes. Child-friendly, diversionary policy and practice is enhanced, we argue, by promoting the inclusion, participation and engagement of children in formal decisions regarding their lives, such as how their behaviour can be best understood and responded to. Similarly, we assert that juvenile justice practitioners should receive the same courtesy in formal decision-making processes, rather than having their practice heavily prescribed and controlled (some would say ‘mechanised’) by rigid instructions from central government bodies.

With this is mind, if juvenile justice practice is to be effective and sustainable, it must be underpinned by data and understandings generated through evidence-based partnership between children, families, practitioners, policy-makers and researchers, as opposed to being the product of the current governmental ‘fetish’ – typically for Americanised, pseudo-scientific, psychological treatment programmes. Crucially, these CFOS principles come together to promote positive ways of working that children can view as legitimate (fair, moral, justified), thus enhancing the potential to prevent offending and to promote positive behaviours and outcomes. A final, essential element of CFOS is the responsibilisation of adults (making them primarily responsible) for ensuring that children are supported and enabled to access their rights and supportive, promotional services and interventions that will improve their lives.

In stark contrast to risk-based juvenile justice, CFOS seeks to promote, not to correct; to responsibilise adults, not responsibilise children; to divert into child-appropriate intervention, not to interfere and stigmatise. CFOS treats offending behaviour as a developmental aspect of children’s lives (it normalises offending) and thus treats children as children, not as offenders. The model offers practitioners a set of principles and a reason to come to work; it offers children who come into conflict with juvenile justice systems opportunity, participation and positive engagements to enhance the quality of their lives.

Case, S.P. and Haines, K.R. (2015) Children First, Offenders Second: The centrality of engagement in positive youth justice. The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice.
Case, S.P. and Haines, K.R. (2009) Understanding Youth Offending: Risk Factor Research, Policy and Practice. Cullompton: Willan.
Haines, K.R. and Case, S.P. (2015) Positive Youth Justice: Children First, Offenders Second. Bristol: Policy Press.
Haines, K.R. and Case, S.P. (2012) Is the Scaled Approach a Failed Approach? Youth Justice, 12 (3): 212-228.
Muncie, J. (2008) The ’punitive’ turn in juvenile justice: Cultures of control and rights compliance in Western Europe and the USA. Youth Justice, 8(2), pp. 107–121.


Stephen Case is Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and Criminology in the Department of Criminology at Swansea University, with research interests in youth justice and children’s rights. Kevin Haines is Professor of Youth Justice in the Department of Criminology at Swansea University, with research interests in youth justice, children’s rights and social inclusion.

Image: Woodworking by participants in Children First, Offenders Second