convicted juveniles do not get the help they need

Juvenile judges Ellen van Kalveen (l.) and Susanne Tempel.Statue Linelle Deunk

Juvenile judges fear that the risk of repetition of the sometimes serious offenses for which they sentence young people will increase. More and more often, there is no timely or correct help for these young people. When asked, the Ministry of Justice confirms that waiting times in the chain are increasing, partly due to staff shortages. Forensic care providers say in a response that they sometimes run into municipal budget ceilings, which means that they are unable to provide imposed care.

The situation is harmful to young people and society, say juvenile judges Susanne Tempel and Ellen van Kalveen in the stately residence of the Council for the Judiciary in The Hague. Tempel (43) has been working as a juvenile judge since 2010, Van Kalveen (54) has worked in juvenile law since 2003 and is chairman of the expert group on juvenile judges.

As an example they cite a young person with an autism disorder and an addiction who commits a serious violent crime. The juvenile judge wants him to receive the right guidance as soon as possible so that he does not make the mistake again. Such a young person may first have to wait more than three months for an advice from the Child Protection Board or the Netherlands Institute for Forensic Psychiatry and Psychology (NIFP). Both institutions suffer from a lack of researchers. Subsequently, there is a long waiting list for specialist help to, for example, teach this young person to curb his aggression.

The Public Prosecution Service (OM) raises the issue ‘regularly’ with the Ministry of Justice, a spokesperson said. According to the Public Prosecution Service, it is ‘appalling’ that young people do not always receive the treatment they need. ‘We notice that due to the lack of treatment capacity, the Child Protection Board sometimes recommends lighter treatments than is actually necessary. So young people don’t always get the most appropriate help.’

In addition, youth prisons suffer from a lack of staff, which means that the convicted juveniles are less well prepared for returning to society. And if the young person is released again, there will hardly be a place for him or her for assisted living.

Van Kalveen and Tempel therefore increasingly feel that they cannot optimally fulfill the task of juvenile criminal law: to guide young people as well as possible so that the risk of recidivism decreases. ‘We authorize the government to intervene,’ says Van Kalveen. ‘But then it is not possible to do what is necessary due to structural defects in the system.’

Unnecessarily long in custody

In a response, the Ministry of Justice acknowledges that youth prisons and the Child Protection Board, among others, are suffering from the shortage on the labor market. As a result, waiting times can increase, a spokesperson said. The ministry wants young people to be given priority on waiting lists for youth care if it concerns care imposed by a juvenile court. But that plan has not yet been realised.

‘There were also problems with waiting lists in the past,’ says Van Kalveen. But she has never experienced it as bad as now, with a structural staff shortage across the field. ‘From the simplest to the most specialized youth care, from juvenile detention centers to the Child Protection Board, things get stuck in all areas. The result: because young people have to wait longer for advice, for example, they are sometimes unnecessarily long in pre-trial detention.’

There are no figures about the increasing waiting times for young offenders and how many of them do not receive the most appropriate care. These can also differ, say those involved in forensic care: per treatment, per municipality and per moment. Also, some municipalities do not want to finance all care imposed by the court because they consider it too expensive. They then opt for a lighter (cheaper) treatment.

‘Psychiatrists and psychologists advise us a certain treatment to prevent as much repetition of the criminal behavior as possible, and we then impose it,’ says Tempel. ‘If such an imposed treatment does not get off the ground, such a young person will continue to develop, but in the wrong direction.’

Painful Situations

The juvenile judges point to recent critical reports from the Justice and Security Inspectorate about the consequences of the lack of staff in juvenile prisons. Several institutions offer less guidance, therapy and education, the Inspectorate notes. These activities should help young people to reintegrate into society. It sometimes happens that they have to stay in their room for a large part of the day and also have to eat there. ‘That situation leads to more unrest in juvenile detention centers’, says Tempel.

The juvenile judges cannot assess whether the identified bottlenecks have led to more recidivism among young people who come into contact with juvenile criminal law – there are no figures – but they do see painful situations. Van Kalveen tells about a minor boy with a disability who severely injured his neighbor across the street. “The whole neighborhood was gutted. The experts’ proposal was to have that young person treated at home. Everyone was behind it, the victim, the family, the suspect.’

But that help had not yet got off the ground after a year, so the case came back to court, says Kalveen. “So that whole street saw that boy walking around all this time, knowing he’s not getting the treatment he needs. The system is unable to achieve this.’

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