International Systems of Youth Justice

This site presents information about international variations in the policies and practices of youth (or juvenile) justice systems, especially those pertaining to the use of secure confinement for youthful offenders. Juvenile justice refers to the procedures used by governments to respond to illegal acts by young people that are different from the procedures used in cases of crime by adults. Juvenile justice systems comprise law enforcement agencies, courts, residential institutions, social welfare organizations, and community-based providers. Juvenile justice systems vary from country to country. In fact, not all countries even have juvenile justice systems. In those that do, there can be significant variations in legal philosophies, policy strategies and organizational structures.

Nations around the globe vary in how they set the age of criminal responsibility for young people, in the complexity of their legal procedures for determining individual culpability, and in the range of services and sanctions used to respond to youthful offenders. In particular, youth justice systems vary significantly in their use of secure confinement, or juvenile incarceration.

Comparing international statistics about secure confinement for youthful offenders is challenging because countries often have different legal definitions of “youth” and different practical definitions of incarceration or “custody,” as well as different methods for collecting and reporting such statistics (Muncie 2006). There are also many different types of custodial placements, from detention centers and training schools, to welfare reception centers and residential treatment facilities. Nations make different choices about whether each type of placement should be included in statistical reports about youth in custody.

One thing is clear, however, when comparing nations on the use of youth incarceration: there is only a partial association between crime and incarceration. The use of secure confinement is not a simple function of youth crime. It is a complex reflection of social values and policy preferences.

Incarceration is one potential response to crime, but it is often a politically popular response. The public rarely opposes measures that appear tough on crime. Physical custody as a crime policy, however, is very expensive. The cost for placing one youth in custody in Europe ranges from 87 Euros per day in Germany to approximately 900 Euros per day in Scotland (Dunkel and Stando-Kawecka 2010).

To control costs, countries sometimes enact measures to reduce youth custody by increasing the use of diversionary options for young offenders. In the United States, for example, some state governments provide financial incentives for local governments to place juveniles in community-based programs rather than in secure state facilities. A few states have even implemented structural realignment strategies to reduce the supply of state-operated facilities and to shift juvenile justice operations to cities and counties (Butts and Evans 2011).

Throughout the world, most countries with juvenile justice systems eventually confront the social and economic costs of youth incarceration and at some point they try to shift interventions away from physical custody and towards diversion, rehabilitation, and community-based programs. The material contained in these pages describes the various ways that nations around the world have implemented such strategies and the policy and practice contexts in which they do so.


Butts, Jeffrey A. and Douglas N. Evans (2011). Resolution, reinvestment, and realignment: Three strategies for changing juvenile justice. New York, NY: Research and Evaluation Center, John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Dunkel, Frieder and Barbara Stando-Kawecka (2010). Juvenile imprisonment and placement in institutions for deprivation of liberty: Comparative aspects. In Dunkel, Frider, Joanna Grzywa, Philip Horsfield and Ineke Pruin (Eds). Juvenile justice systems in Europe: Current situation and reform developments vol.4 (pp. 1763-1812). Monchengladbach, DE: Forum Verlag Godesberg GmbH.

Muncie, John (2006). Repenalisation and rights: Explorations in comparative youth criminology. The Howard Journal, 45(1), 42-70.


Development of this site was supported by a generous grant from the New York Community Trust.