Fact Sheet: Young Offenders

 
About the fact-sheet series: Fact sheets summarize current literature into a short (2 page) document intended for distribution. Fact-sheets are extremely useful for academics, professionals or laypeople who are in contact with offenders, victims, corrections or the legal system in any way. They provide a means to disseminate empirically based information in a way that is both quick and useful.
 
About the authors: This article was co-authored. The primary author was Oskana Malanceva, EAPL-S representative for Russia and Ph.D. student at Moscow City University. The co-author and editor was Julia Shaw, EAPL-S co-president and Ph.D. student at the University of British Columbia (Canada).

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Who are young offenders?

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.

Youth Courts

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.

Research on Possible Risk Factors

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:

  • Childhood (from 5-6 to 10-11): family problems, environmental stressors, genetic and biological factors, cognitive deficits, lack of affection.
  • Childhood and adolescence (from 10-11 to 16-18): problems in school, poor social relationships, problematic development of self and identity, lack of skills and experience, poor long-term planning.
  • Early adulthood (from 18 to 21): poor peer relationships, problems in sexual relationships, employment problems.

Other theories that have been pivotal in understanding the origins of criminal behavior include:

  • Social deprivation theory (Bowlby, Ainsworth, Boston, 1956)
  • The cycle of violence (Curtis, 1963)
  • Control theory (Hirschi, 1969)
  • Social-cognitive theory (Bandura, 1973)
  • The theory of social interaction (Forehand, King, Peed, Yoder, 1975)
  • The theory of anomie (Merton, 1986)

Rehabilitation

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.

Conclusion

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.

Quick summary

  • The legal definition of “young offender” varies greatly
  • Youth courts focus on rehabilitation, not punishment
  • Consider individual AND environmental risk factors such as family and peers
  • “Adolescence-limited delinquency” is very common
  • Alternatives to imprisonment are highly recommended for youth, as is a focus on rehabilitation.

Where can I get more information?

Information from the EAPL-S is available online, in PDF, or as paper brochures sent through the mail. If you would like to have EAPL-S publications, you can order hardcopies for a nominal fee through This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

References

* NOTE: Because this article was primarily written by our Russian representative, some of these references are only available in Russian.

1.     Dozortseva, E. (2004). Abnormal development of personality of adolescents with delinquent behavior. Monograph. Moscow, Russia: SFP by Serbskij, V.,P.

2.     Lösel, F. (2002). Risk/need assessment and prevention of antisocial development in young people: Basic issues from a perspective of cautionary optimism. In R. R. Corrado, R. Roesch ... J. K. Gierowski (Eds.), Multi-problem violent youth: A foundation for comparative research on needs, interventions and outcomes (pp. 35-57). Amsterdam Netherlands: IOS Press.

3.     Suh-Ruu O., Reynolds, A.J., (2010). Childhood predictors of young adult male crime. Children and Youth Services Review (32), 1097-1107.

4.     Villani, S., Sharfstein, S.S. (1999). Evaluating and Treating Violent Adolescents in the Managed Care Era. American Journal of Psychiatry (156), 458-464.

5.     Gorkovaja, I., A. (1998). Re-socialization of adolescents with behaviorial violations. Social and Forensic Psychiatry: History and the present collected articles. Moscow, Russia: SFP by Serbskij, V.,P.

6.     Kleiberg, J., A. (2001). Psychology of deviant behaviour: Teaching aid. Moscow, Russia: Sphera.

7.     Pirozhkov, V., F. (1998). Criminal Psychology: Psychology of young crime. Moscow, Russia: Os-89.

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