Youth Crime - Comparative justice


International rights and national priorities

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) - stresses the importance of incorporating a rights-based approach into juvenile justice reform by, for example:

  • Establishing an age of criminal responsibility relative to developmental capacity
  • Encouraging children’s participation in decision making
  • Providing access to legal representation for children
  • Protecting children from capital or degrading punishment and ensuring that arrest, detention and imprisonment are measures of last resort
  • Emphasising that the well-being of those aged under 18 should be a primary consideration.

The UK has in practice taken a different approach that is ‘responsibility-based’, i.e. younger children held criminally responsible for their actions than is the case in comparable countries

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Childrens human rights and international youth jus

  • Primary aim is to meet the child’s needs and promote their best interests
  • Yet there is growing tendency to lower age of criminal responsibility and increase penalties for children found guilty
  • International violations of UNCRC notably include: failure to increase the minimum age of criminal responsibility; neglecting to use custody as a ‘last resort’; excessive and undue criminalisation of minority children and young people; the prevalence of violence and abuse in penal institutions
  • Roma children and young people seem particularly vulnerable to racism and discrimination, in across European countries
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Comapring stats

Age of responsibility

  • UK is the second lowest, Scotland being lowest with 8
  • Belgium highest with 18 - considers justice approaches to children and young people wholly inappropriate

Prison populations

  • USA - 2,266,832
  • England and Wales - 86,708

Under 18s in Prison

  • USA - 70,792
  • England and Wales - 1,544 (2013/14)
  • Norway - 3
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Difference in countries

Nelken (2006) - reasons for lower crime other than the law - five wider conditions or factors 

  • Italian young people commit less crime
  • The strength of the Italian ‘family’ and attitudes to young people
  • Less politically (and media) exploited public fear of conventional crime as compared to common law countries
  • Judges play a much larger role in defining the crime problem as compared to common law countries
  • Catholic culture
  • We might add that the Italian CJS is notoriously inefficient and corrupt with 3 year waiting lists for cases
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  • What marks the Finnish system compared to England and Wales is consensus and consistency unlike the wild fluctuations in policy found in the latter jurisdiction – despite significantly high rates of juvenile crime

The reasons are simple:

  • In the case of Finland ‘tolerance’ is official policy and has seen steep reductions in youth custody without any accompanying rises in youth crime
  • The Finnish system is based on expert opinion rather than short-term populist and punitive politically motivated gestures
  • There seems to be a strong association between social and economic security and solidarity granted by the welfare-state and low levels of penal repression
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Factors within countries

  • Italy - absence of penal repression against children and young people - explained by - culture – Catholic paternalism – and the nature of family life and group conformity, Finland’s can be explained by its ethnic and class homogeneity and equality, and the provision of security by its welfare state
  • Anglo-American societies in contrast are driven by large ethnic and class inequalities leading to social exclusion and relatively weaker welfare systems (especially in the USA). There is often also in these countries a sense of ‘sink or swim’ towards people who leave school
  • Youth crime and penal repression in England and Wales and America reflect not only the social exclusion of significant proportions of their youth populations but the centrality of popular and media fears of youth crime that becomes reflected in youth justice legal systems - It is thought likely to be the case though that youth crime is higher in these countries
  • However, as the case of Finland shows there would seem to be little relationship between crime rates and imprisonment rates – the latter does not significantly reduce the former when crime rates are caused by a host of other factors
  • In other words penal repression seems to be about revenge and punitive attitudes in these societies rather than any arguments about the youth justice system being effective in reducing crime. Italy’s and Finland’s radical non-intervention – doing little or nothing – has not led to significant rises in crime in these countries
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Explanations for comparative national offending

  • Life-time juvenile offending rates are similar across countries
  • However, property offence rates are highest in NW European countries and the USA (more opportunities in most prosperous countries)
  • But high rates of violent and serious offences in the US, UK, Spain and Helsinki 

Overall, patterns and risk factors seem to belong to three clusters of countries:

  • a) Anglo-Saxon
  • b) South Europe
  • c) NW Europe   
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Esping-Anderson (1990)

Does less welfare result in a more punitive criminal justice response to youth crime?

  • ‘Liberal’: means-tested, strict, minimum and  modest benefits to lower socio-economic groups (US, UK, Canada and Australia)
  • Corporatist state: committed to preservation of traditional family support after which social rights and quite generous welfare is provided (Austria, France, Germany and Italy)
  • Social democratic: promotes equality of the highest standards to all groups with generous universal social insurance support (Scandinavia)
  • UK - welfare spending 20.8% - imprisonment rate per 100,000 (15+) - 124
  • USA - 14.6% - 666
  • Italy - 25.% - 86
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Findings and implications

Junger-Tas et al (2003)

  • Age: onset of serious offending similar across countries but violence and drug onset is earlier in Anglo-Saxon countries
  • Father absence: closely related with delinquency in Anglo-Saxon and Southern European but not NW European countries
  • Why? Major differences in the social welfare and income transfer systems between the three clusters
  • Truancy and school failure is a major risk factor across all countries (for boys).
  • In South Europe young people spend considerable time with their informal peer group rather than family without in any way being related to delinquent behaviour, in contrast to Anglo-Saxon countries
  • The most striking finding is the absence of a relationship between lone mother families and delinquency in NW Europe
  • Other factors were the availability of apprenticeship systems and well organised youth transitions in discouraging an hiatus and laissez faire attitude to risky transitions
  • Countries with least inequality (NW Europe) tend to have lower delinquency rates than those with most inequality (UK and US)
  • However, moderately unequal countries (Southern Europe) rely less on a reliable welfare system and more on family support and welfare
  • Police forces in Anglo-Saxon countries are much more likely to detect juvenile delinquency than in Southern Europe, and when it is detected in NW European countries, is more likely to be dealt with through child welfare than youth justice
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Juvenile crime rates and juvenile prison rates

  • Actual serious juvenile offending rates are fairly similar internationally
  • Yet custodial responses across countries are very different
  • Of key importance is that rates of serious offending are not consistently reflected as rates of imprisonment across countries
  • In other words, the prevalence of custody does not particularly reflect the prevalence of serious offending
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  • Strong relationship between imprisonment rates and different sorts of welfare states and social cohesion
  • In general, the less welfare, the more imprisonment…which should be deemed to take the responsibility of youth crime?
  • Free market (and Protestant?) societies are more likely to punish children and young people than corporatist and social democratic societies
  • Young law breakers in corporatist and social democratic societies, are much more likely to be treated on the basis of rehabilitation, re-socialization and informal controls such as religion and family, than on punishment.
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Fairly common similarities across countries

  • If young people commit offences these are predominantly minor ones
  • Only a small proportion of offenders commit more serious or a large variety of offences
  • Most noteworthy difference between countries is between the former socialist countries and the rest with respect to property offences, especially shoplifting
  • These rates in Central and Eastern Europe cities are considerably lower than cities in Western Europe and the Anglo-Saxon countries, possibly due to lifestyle
  • Those who report a higher level of offending also report a higher level of victimisation, in particular theft, assault and extortion - this reflects some young people’s life-styles, characterised by going out more, especially at night
  • Thinking of alcohol use as a risk factor rather than as delinquency, alcohol use is fairly common among 12-15 year olds with considerable national variations - in all countries only a small proportion of young people reports getting drunk very often, however
  • Drug use is mainly soft drug use, is much less common than alcohol, and varies considerably between countries
  • First and second generation children of immigrants tend to have higher delinquency rates than native born young people, but this does not apply for all migrants
  • Young people with low social control consistently report higher levels of offending
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