The future of youth justice: lessons from the Netherlands

This is a guest blog by Fleur Souverein. Fleur is in Melbourne as a visiting scholar of the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne until the end of March 2020.  

Together with our co-convenors Diana Johns, Stuart Ross and Sanne Oostermeijer, Local Time Designer, she is conducting a comparative analysis of youth justice and its social-cultural, political and systemic context in the Netherlands and Victoria; to explore how key elements of the Dutch model may be transferred to and implemented in Victoria to alleviate some of the current challenges.

orange leaf on chainlink fence
Photo by Brett Sayles on

Thank you to the JYP network for inviting me to write a guest blog about my research work.  Please feel free to email me  if you would like to discuss any aspect of my research.

The focus of my project lies on the feasibility and efficacy of small scale community based juvenile justice facilities and the conceptualization of relational security  in a juvenile justice setting. Aligned with my PhD, I’m leading an intensive three year evaluation project of a community based juvenile justice facility in Amsterdam. Each aspect of this facility is carefully monitored: implementation, criteria for placement and assessment process, the trajectories during and after placement, the work processes, effective components and challenges; involving quantitative research methods (case file analysis, questionnaires) as well as qualitative research method (weekly observations at the facility, observations during the monthly pilot’s advisory boards meetings and semi- structured interviews with juveniles, parents, staff and stakeholders). This project is subsidized by the Ministry of Justice and Security, supervised by Prof.  A. Popma, Dr. E. Mulder and Mr. Dr. L van Domburgh.

The semi-open small scale community based facility in Amsterdam provides security and structure for justice involved young people (boys on remand) who do not necessarily need high security measures, in close proximity to their social environment and support.

A young person says: ‘The facility resembles a normal life, as it is supposed to’.

During incarceration, under continuous supervision, protective factors (like school, work, social support structures, mental health care) are continued or initiated within the community.

In nearly all trajectories (98%) pre-existing structural daytime activities (like school or work) were continued or initiated within the community. The same accounts for external support structures. For example, if a young person was seeing a psychologist or social worker at the time of his arrest, the facility allows this treatment to continue while the young person is at the facility.

A young person says: ‘It is very good that I can work here, it allows me to really work on myself. I have an exciting job. It stimulates my personal development’.

A follow-up review showed that an average of ten months after release the majority of the young people (78%) were still engaged in a structured daytime activity (like school or work).

The facility operates on a small scale with a maximum of eight young people with an individualized approach through differentiated arrangements in security and care.

A young person says: They [staff] are focused on you individually, your development. This is different inside [to a high security juvenile justice institution]. There they have more standard sanctions, this or that. It is more them vs us.

Within a therapeutic institutional environment, security is mainly established through relational security, supported by a few physical and procedural security measures. Within context of this facility, relational security is conceptualized by the following three distinct but interrelated facets:

A constructive working alliance between the young people and the staff where all young person’s autonomy and responsibility are explicitly promoted by the staff. The young person and their parent/caregiver sit in on every meeting where stakeholders meet to discuss the young person’s own treatment plan.

The facility creates a space where young people can learn by trial and error. Within this alliance, staff take on a coaching role and communicate in a non-authoritative way. No standard sanctions apply; after every rule violations a staff member sits with the young person and their case manager to discuss the appropriate sanction. The focus lies on the underlying factors that led to the inappropriate behavior and what young person needs to do to prevent this behavior in the future.

A young person says: ‘You can see that they truly give you a chance; you can only mess it up yourself, no one else can. They give you space to show that you are willing to do well. But they also give you the space to fuck it up. You can easily walk out of the door; it is your decision if you go or not.’

Staff-young person interaction is characterized by six elements: love and attention, connection, sincerity, empowerment, with staff as a role model, and respect for mutual boundaries.

A young person says: Ok so, look at it this way. You are sick and I want you to get better. Then I throw you into a room full of sick people. Do you think you will get better? Hell no! That is why I believe this works.

Why? Here I am surrounded with positive people, healthy people. I take something positive with me when I leave; the staff inspire me’

Security staff are present to observe, signal, prevent and, if needed, de-escalate incidents that might arise.

A young person says: ‘Small incidents never really escalated because there is always someone there’.

Further by being present, staff are available if a young person needs (emotional) support; also staff presence allows for a lot of (informal) contact with the young people so staff members get to know everyone individually and know how to intervene in a de-escalating manner.

In the interviews, both staff as well as young people and their parents/caregivers report high measures of experienced safety; an analysis of the daily staff reports show a very low incidence of severe aggression incidents. The young people and their caregivers state positive relationships with staff and feel supported. Staff report that they have job satisfaction and the staff turnover rate is low.

These preliminary results show that relational security can provide a framework to establish both a supervised and structured as well as therapeutic and safe environment in juvenile justice settings.

In the coming year, our research team at the Academic Collaborative center for (at-risk) justice involved youth (AWRJ) will further develop this concept of relational security and its operationalization and outcomes in various juvenile justice settings.


Profielfoto Fleur


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