— Douglas Evans, John Jay College of Criminal Justice
The responsibility for operating the youth justice system in Belgium is divided between the national government and local communities. The national government oversees judicial handling of juvenile offenders and each community is responsible for implementing the services and sanctions ordered by youth courts. Legal procedures for youthful offenders are based on Belgium’s Youth Protection Act (YPA) of 1965. The YPA established a rehabilitative focus for Belgian juvenile justice. It’s purpose of the YPA was to ensure a youth’s future welfare, protection, and education rather than punish his or her prior offenses. The YPA originally set the minimum age of criminal responsibility at 16, but an amendment later raised the age to 18. Offenders under the age of 18 are not criminally culpable and are handled in Youth Court (Weijers, Nuytiens and Christiaens 2009). There is no lower age limit.
The YPA originally sanctioned life imprisonment for juveniles. Officials revised the YPA in 2006 to prohibit life sentences, but youth charged with serious offenses remain eligible for transfer to criminal court or extended youth jurisdiction. Youth courts in Belgium transfer between one and three percent of juveniles offenders to criminal court jursidiction (Weijers, Nuytiens and Christiaens 2009).
Prosecutors have four options when dealing with juvenile offenders. They can dismiss the charges, send the juvenile to Special Youth Services to address personal or familial problems, order alternative sanctions, or refer a juvenile’s case to a youth court. From 1980 to 1997, prosecutors referred just 20 percent of juveniles to youth court and judges sentenced half of those youth to some form of residential confinement (Van Dijk 2004). In the early 2000s, prosecutors still dismissed formal charges in more than 70 percent of all cases (Van Dijk, Dumortier and Eliaerts 2006).
Belgian prosecutors supported diversion programs since the 1980s. Although prosecutors often dismissed formal charges against minor youth offenders, diversion was seen as an affirmation for victims and society that responding to youth offending is more than simply a legal process. Diversion enabled youth courts to discipline youth offenders, rehabilitate them and reduce their risk for recidivism while keeping the use of secure custody to a minimum.
The Youth Protection Act of 1994 supported youth courts in transferring larger numbers of the most serious offenders to criminal courts, and it strengthened the due process rights of juveniles. In 2002, Belgium enacted a prohibition on the placement of juveniles in adult prison and it established a special facility for juvenile offenders that is operated by the national government. Belgium closed a number of other residential facilities for juveniles, but these were rehabilitation-oriented institutions operated by local governments. The purpose of the new facility is clearly incapacitation and public safety. The facility is for juveniles, but it resembles an adult prison. Courts now confine more than 1,000 youths per year in Belgium. Juvenile confinement traditionally lasts three months, but judges can extend this by an additional three months, and then month by month after that (Van Dijk 2004).
In the 1990s, researchers and advocates worked to encourage the inclusion of restorative justice in the juvenile system (Van Dijk, Dumortier and Eliaerts 2006). Victim-offender mediation calls for the offender to meet with his or her victim to gain insight into the effects of the offense. Restorative justice is becoming a central component of Belgian youth justice.
Van Dijk, Catherine (2004). Juvenile delinquency and juvenile justice in Belgium. Paper presented at the conference of the European Society of Criminology, Amsterdam, 25-28 August.
Van Dijk, Catherine, Els Dumortier and Christian Eliaerts (2006). Survival of the protection model? Competing goals in Belgian juvenile justice. In Junger-Tas, Josine and Scott H. Decker (Eds.) International Handbook of Juvenile Justice (pp. 187-223). New York, NY: Springer.
Weijers, Ido, An Nuytiens and Jenneke Christiaens (2009). Transfer of minors to the criminal court in Europe: Belgium and the Netherlands. In Junger-Tas, Josine and Frieder Dunkel (Eds.) Reforming juvenile justice (pp. 105-124). New York, NY: Springer.