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A young offender is a person within a certain age range who has committed a criminal offence. The age of legal responsibility differs across countries, with the legal designation of young offender often beginning between ages 10-13 and ending between ages 17-20. Ireland has the lowest age of responsibility in Europe, convicting children as young as 7 (which is the same as the US state average). Issues surrounding young offenders are often controversial and researchers have given a great deal of attention to trying to balance prevention, punishment and rehabilitation.
This fact-sheet is intended to aid those who deal with young offenders by reviewing information on youth courts, empirical research in the area, risk factors for young offenders and rehabilitation efforts.
Most countries have a separate legal system for young offenders. The illegal behavior of minors is often labelled delinquent behavior as opposed to crime, as to underline the differences between the acts of children/youth and adults. The reason for this is that children and youth are considered to have a lack of understanding regarding social norms and the long-term consequences of their actions. However, according to some legislation, this hypothesis needs proof. If it is established that an adolescent has committed an offense intentionally and understood the consequences at the time of the crime, he may be prosecuted as an adult. However, most adolescents are tried in youth courts that have a strong focus on correctional education.
The new movement of correctional education has shifted the priority from imposing criminal sanctions to finding appropriate measures for re-socialization, taking into account individual and age-related differences in mental and personal development. These differences are also the primary focus of the research in this field.
Researchers often focus on the causes of young offending, primarily adolescents’ personality characteristics and delinquent behavior. While the origins of criminal behavior can be very complex, it is often the interplay of a deprived environment and personality characteristics that form the basis of criminal behavior. Although some adolescents continue down a criminal path through adulthood, many young offenders will engage in something called adolescence-limited delinquency which means that they only offend during their turbulent and rebellious teenage years and stop once they reach adulthood.
Psychologists have identified the following primary risk factors for the development of antisocial behavior in youth:
Other theories that have been pivotal in understanding the origins of criminal behavior include:
Social, educational and psychological programs are often provided for young offenders during imprisonment, as well as alternative sanctions that divert youth away from custody entirely. Alternative sanctions often include community-based interventions that focus on either helping the youth pay back their debt to society (e.g., through community service) or to their victims (e.g., repairing damaged property). Sometimes, an approach called restorative justice is also used, which brings together victims and perpetrators in an attempt to generate empathy and understanding of the harm done to the victim by the young offender, and helps the victim gain closure regarding the incident.
One of the most empirically backed treatments is called Multi-Systemic Therapy. This approach is tailored for each adolescent and is designed to address multiple problems both within the individual and in the different contexts in which they live; family, peers, school, and neighbourhood. Multi-Systemic Therapy has been shown to be very effective in rehabilitating youth.
While every country seems to have a different approach when dealing with young offenders, there appears to be an international push towards rehabilitation rather than punishment. In line with this, the research suggests that the unique developmental issues of children and youth need to be strongly considered when deciding on appropriate sentences and treatment options. Young offenders are considerably more malleable than adults, so imprisonment should be treated as a last resort. Alternative sanctions and diversion have shown promising results and are highly recommended, especially considering the high prevalence of adolescence-limited delinquency.
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