Youths under age 12 are not accountable for their criminal actions in the Netherlands. Historically, Dutch youth court judges rarely issued custodial sentences so there has been little need to reduce youth custody through the use of alternative sanctions. In recent decades, increases in juvenile crime have changed the landscape of youth justice in the Netherlands.

Juvenile incarceration in the Netherlands started to increase considerably in the 1960s. From 1960 to 2003, the number of juvenile detainees more than doubled. From 2001 to 2003 alone, the juvenile custodial population increased more than 20 percent (Van der Laan 2006). The rise in juvenile custody is in part due to the country’s punitive response to the steady increase in violent juvenile crime over the last two decades.

The number of juveniles in custody increased 63 percent between 1997 and 2003. Most of the youths in custody were serving detention and the number of youths in juvenile institutions increased from 192 to 202 during this time (Van der Laan 2006). To meet the demand for institutional space, from the early 1990s to 2005 officials doubled the number of beds inside juvenile institutions, from approximately 1,000 to more than 2,000 beds. Further increases are expected (Van der Laan 2006). Despite increases in the juvenile custodial population, courts have reduced the imprisonment of juveniles in adult facilities. In 1997, there were 284 juveniles in adult prisons and by 2003, there were 217 juveniles in adult prisons (Van der Laan 2006).

Like British police, Dutch police have discretion to divert juveniles from the legal system. Police can recommend a juvenile for prosecution, but they can also issue a warning, refer a juvenile for support services, or place a juvenile in the Halt program. Halt is a less severe punishment than prosecution but more serious than a police warning.

Police divert many juveniles from the legal system by placing them in the Halt program. Between 1996 and 2003, police sent an annual average of 21,000 juveniles to Halt (Van der Laan 2006). The Halt program entails restorative services and requires low-level offenders to pay restitution or repair the damage from their offense. Juveniles can only participate if they take responsibility for their offense. Halt appears to be effective at reducing recidivism. Participants ceased or reduced their offending while a not one youth in a comparison group ceased offending. Although researchers did not study a comparison group in regards to recidivism, the six-month recidivism rate for juveniles who completed the Halt program was between six percent and 13 percent (Van Hees 1999).

Youth courts have a range of sentencing options available for juvenile offenders. Judges can convict without punishment, issue a fine, and render a suspended or unsuspended custodial sentence. Custodial sentences, which range from one day to six months, comprised 20 percent of all juvenile sentences in the early 1990s (Van der Laan 1992).

The Dutch government introduced alternative sentences for juveniles in 1983 to provide courts with non-custodial options for rehabilitation. Alternative sentences took time to catch on, but they have become useful for judges. In 1983, juvenile courts ordered 304 alternative sanctions. By 1990, courts ordered alternative sanctions for 2,771 juveniles. As the use of alternatives increased, the number of custodial orders remained the same. Because the number of dismissals decreased, the rise in alternative sanctions indicates that judges would have dismissed many of these cases if alternatives did not exist (Van der Laan 1992).

The Netherlands continued to expand its alternative programs as prosecutors recommended more alternative sanctions for juveniles. Public prosecutors issued alternative sanctions for juveniles in 8,600 cases in 2003, more than half of all punishments issued in that year (Van der Laan 2006). Officials launched Kwartaalkursus, an intensive day program lasting three months, to replace long-term custodial sentences. Kwartaalkursus consists of skills and vocational training, educational attention, and sports activity. It requires juveniles to engage in group work at non-commercial institutions to improve their vocational and social skills (Van der Laan 1992). The success rate for alternative sanctions is high; only 12 to 15 percent of youths fail such orders.

The Dutch government advocates juvenile reform and education in its youth justice system as exemplified by its increased use of alternative sanctions and rehabilitation programs. In 2002, nearly 8,700 juveniles had contact with rehabilitation services, which is three times as many compared to 1995 (Van der Laan 2006). Evaluations indicate that alternative sanctions are more effective at rehabilitating juveniles than custodial sentences. Juveniles given alternative sanctions have lower offense rates than those given detention. If they do reoffend, they do so less frequently, less quickly, and their offenses are less serious (Van der Laan 2006).