Through Dutch eyes: Mini blog series reflecting on differences between the NZ and Dutch criminal justice systems

Part two - Adolescent criminal law


One of the things that surprised me the most when I started at JustSpeak was hearing about their successful campaign to remove most 17 year olds from the adult justice system.

It was such a surprise that this even needed to be campaigned for when in The Netherlands we have an adolescent criminal law that can apply up to the age of 23. Internationally, New Zealand is one of the last jurisdictions in the OECD to implement the change to include 17 years olds in youth court.

In The Netherlands the juvenile criminal law applies from the ages 12 until 18 years. From 18 years on adult criminal law applies. In between the adult and juvenile criminal law systems, there is also ‘adolescent criminal law’. It’s not a separate form of criminal law, but more of an intersection for young people between the ages of 16 and 23 years old.

This means that young people between the ages of 18-23 can receive interventions which are normally only used for juveniles. It also goes the other way around. Young people aged 16-17 who have committed very serious offences can be sentenced according to the adult system.

This adolescent criminal law has only been implemented since 2014. But before that in some cases juvenile criminal law already applied to young people up till the age of 21. This was to allow for cases involving mental health or neurodisability concerns, or the particular circumstances in which the offence occurred, to be taken into account.

The Netherlands implemented the adolescent criminal law because people in the age group 18-23 make up a large percentage of those going through the criminal justice system. Besides that, neuropsychological research showed that young people between these ages have brains that are still developing. This research was picked up by politicians, which led to the more recent extension of the age from 21 to 23.

The main goals of the implementation of this adolescent criminal law were, among other things, to allow more flexibility in applying sanctions for 18-23 year olds, focus on rehabilitation, lower recidivism rates, more emphasis on safety in the community and protection of those victimised.

Case study example:

A 21-year old assaulted another young person and one of his mentors. This man has been dealing with cognitive difficulties and has a specific form of autism. He has difficulties controlling his anger. The judge decided that it would be more appropriate for him to go to a youth facility and access services instead of getting a prison sentence. Within this youth facility he received psychoeducation to learn to deal with his frustrations and anger management training. This way the focus lies more on the underlying issues that have led to the offence, instead of focusing on punishment with little thought for the implications.

This adolescent criminal law has only been implemented in The Netherlands since 2014, so studies of its effectiveness are not yet available. But I think that the implementation of this new way of sentencing is great step forward. I think it is important to impose penalties for young people which are appropriate and effective, not only for the person themselves, but also for the community.

The best way to prevent these young people ending up in prison is to provide opportunities that divert them from this path. As we all know being incarcerated at a young age increases the probability of incarceration as an adult. New Zealand has just started to recognise that the adult justice system is not appropriate or effective for 17 year olds. I hope the progress doesn’t stop there.