— Jennifer Peirce, John Jay College of Criminal Justice
Italy established its first Juvenile Courts in 1934, which set out specialized judges and prioritized “moral correction.” In 1956, a new law updated this framework, emphasizing that the system should respond to minors’ social and economic needs. Nevertheless, during the following decades, the detention of youth in locked facilities (often old convents and schools) expanded. In the late 1970s, there was an effort to decentralize the social services for youth offenders, including offering them in communities rather than in detention facilities. In 1988, the Juvenile Justice Procedural Reform Act restructured the juvenile justice system, in anticipation of the requirements of the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and in order to align with the shift from an inquisitorial to an accusatory justice system. This law is based on principles of reducing minors’ contact with the criminal justice system, reducing social stigmatization of adjudicated youth, and ensuring that detention is a measure of last resort (Istituto Don Calabria 2013).
In the current system, the minimum age of criminal responsibility is 14 years old. Youth between 14 to 17 years old are the responsibility of the juvenile justice system, but they can remain under the juvenile system until they are 21 years old, rather than being transferred to the adult system. A 1994 Constitutional Court ruling prohibited sentences of life without parole for minors.
The 1988 Reform Act significantly expanded alternatives to incarceration and diversion of juveniles away from adjudication. The Act established three methods of diversion. Prior to a case reaching trial, a judge can a) dismiss a charge by declaring the offense irrelevant or by prioritizing the “non-interruption” of the youth’s education process, b) issue a pardon if they believe the youth will not reoffend, or c) order messa alla prova (‘putting you to the test’), which is essentially pre-trial probation. Judges can issue messa alla prova regardless of a youth’s offense, so that even murderers can serve pre-trial probation.
There are approximately 1,200 juveniles on pre-trial probation each year (Nelken 2006). At the trial stage, judicial options are more restricted. If a judge finds a youth guilty, the only punishment option is imprisonment. However, judges have the discretion to suspend or reduce a sentence, which typically entail community supervision, probation, or a semi-custodial sentence. The majority of youth delinquents do not make it to trial, but, for those who do, judges convict and imprison about 20 percent (McAuley 2010). Notably, since suspended or reduced sentences often require that a family or community take on “custody” of the youth, this option is less accessible to foreign minors and those involved in mafia dynamics, as they typically do not have families or communities willing to accept this role (Meringolo 2012). In order for a community to take on officially the supervision and reintegration of an adjudicated youth, the juvenile court must qualify it as a “ministerial community,” with the capacity to provide education and reentry services (Istituto Don Calabria 2013).
Italian youth courts have reduced prison sentence orders since passage of the Juvenile Justice Procedural Reform Act. Even though the arrest rate for minors ages 14-17 has increased (from about 1400 to 1828 per 100,000 youth (Padovino and Brutto 2008)), the numbers of minors in detention facilities has dropped significantly. In general, only youths convicted of serious crimes are sent to juvenile detention centers, known as Istituto Penale Minorile or IPM (Nelken 2006; Istituto Don Calabria 2013). There are 16 such centers in Italy, with almost 1,400 employees (Meringolo 2012). Separate centers, known as “first reception centers” (CPA), hold youth for short periods after arrest or during pretrial stages, and provide some basic social and psychological services (Istituto Don Calabria 2013).
In 1988, there were approximately 7,500 juveniles in prison facilities (IPMs) throughout the year. Two years later, there were less than 1,000 juveniles in these facilities. The number of imprisoned youth slightly rebounded to about 2,000 the following year, and remained stable through the 1990s, dropping to 1,200 in 2009 (Meringolo 2012), and to 992 in 2014 (Ministry of Justice 2015). Despite the high number of youths that enter prisons each year, the average number of youth in prison on a given day is much less: approximately 452 in 2013, 184 of whom are foreign-born youth (Istituto Don Calabria 2013). At least half of these youth are actually between 18-21 years old, as those sentenced to detention prior to age 18 can remain in the juvenile detention system until they turn 21, in line with international recommendations about young adult maturation processes (Meringolo 2012).
Through the 1990s, judges sentenced between 300 and 500 youths to prison sentences each year. Since 2001, courts have sent less than 200 youths to prison annually (McAuley 2010); in 2014, 37 percent of youth in IPMs entered that year (Ministry of Justice 2015). The total number of minors under the jurisdiction of the Social Services Office has increased from 14,744 in 2007 to 20,222 in 2014 (Ministry of Justice 2015), with a growing proportion of this number being foreign youth. The rate of system-involved youth who are in community placement (as opposed to detention) has increased steadily since 2006, with 1,716 in this category in 2014 (Ministry of Justice 2015). There are also a significant and growing proportion under alternative measures: 408 in 2013 (Istituto Don Calabria 2013).
The decline in youth prison sentences suggests that the Procedural Reform Act has been achieving its primary goal. Youth courts use alternative sanctions to divert delinquents from legal proceedings, require them to participate in tailored educational programs, and expose them to support services that aid their rehabilitation. Community placements are also much less costly than detention: 111 euros per day, compared to 424 euros for a detention facility (Istituto Don Calabria 2013). Furthermore, in partnership with non-governmental organizations, the Italian government has piloted and expanded victim-offender mediation and restorative justice programs focused on juveniles in conflict with the law (Padovino and Brutto 2008).
There are not yet any formal evaluations of these programs in terms of recidivism or other social outcomes, but anecdotal evidence is positive and communities are requesting more such services. It took Italy more than a decade after passing the Procedural Reform Act to establish alternative and rehabilitative sanctions, but the country now has one of the lowest youth incarceration rates in the world.
Nevertheless, there are growing concerns about the disproportionate involvement of foreign and Roma youth in the Italian juvenile justice. The foreign minors involved in the juvenile justice system are primarily migrants from Eastern Europe and North Africa, many of whom arrive in Italy unaccompanied and with few resources (Meringolo 2012). Out of the total of juveniles charged in 2000-2003, a higher proportion of foreign and Roma youth ended up with a sentence or detention. More than 40 percent of youth in the IPMs are foreign or Roma youth (and this proportion reaches 70% in Northern Italy), even though only about 25 percent of youth charged with a crime and 20 percent of all youth under the juvenile justice system’s supervision in Italy are foreign (Meringolo 2012; Ministry of Justice 2015).
This imbalance is more striking considering the fact that foreign and Roma youth are primarily charged with property crimes, while Italian-born youth form the majority of those charged with violent and interpersonal crimes. In the South of Italy, many Italian-born minors are also charged for involvement in organized crime (Meringolo 2012). A larger proportion of the foreign and Roma minors in detention are girls, compared to Italian minors – 38 percent compared to 5 percent (Padovino and Brutto 2008). Critics contend that minors with few economic resources and little access to social networks in Italy are less able to access the range of alternative and educational services that are, in principle, available to them in the juvenile justice system (Padovino and Brutto 2008; Istituto Don Calabria 2013).
Istituto Don Calabria (2013). Italy National Report – J.O.D.A. – Juvenile Offenders Detention Alternative in Europe. Brussels: European Union.
McAuley, Mary (2010). Children in Custody: Anglo-Russian Perspectives. London: Bloomsbury.
Meringolo, Patrizia (2012). Juvenile justice system in Italy: Researches and interventions. Universitas Psychologica, 11(4), 1081-1092.
Ministero della Giustizia [Ministry of Justice]. (2015). I Servizi della Giustizia Minorile: Dati statistici [Juvenile Justice Services: Statistical Data]. Rome.
Nelken, David (2006). Italy: A Lesson in Tolerance? In John Muncie and Barry Goldson (Eds.), Comparative Youth Justic (159-176). United Kingdom: Sage Publications.
Padovani, Alessandro and Sabrina Brutto (2008). Qualifying elements of a good practice: some intervention praxis of inclusion and treatment with young offenders in Italy. Proceedings from IJJO 2008: III International Conference on Juvenile Justice. Valencia: International Juvenile Justice Observatory.