The potential of community sanctions for youth offenders: a case for a more targeted approach

Gwendolyn Koops-Geuze

The juvenile justice system faces the constant challenge of getting and keeping youth offenders who come into contact with the juvenile justice system on the right path. Community services are often imposed; this is also true for youth offenders who appear in juvenile court. But what exactly are the effects of community services? The dissertation of Gwendolyn Koops-Geuze, PhD candidate at Erasmus School of Law, addresses the potential of community services for youth offenders sentenced by the juvenile court but also points out important areas of concern that prevent the optimal use of this potential.

Despite the growing use of community service in Western juvenile justice systems, the (long-term) effects of community service on youth recidivism remained unclear. In particular, regarding the application of community service in the most advanced phase of the juvenile justice system: when youth offenders appear before the juvenile court. "Among other things, my research shows that youth offenders sentenced to community service were less likely and less severely relapsed into crime than juveniles with a (short) custodial sentence. The potential, therefore, lies with community service in terms of reducing recidivism and disrupting the path to long-term criminality in adulthood", Koops-Geuze states. However, her research also shows that the emphasis on the pedagogical objective within the juvenile justice system is in danger of getting underemphasised for some youth offenders: "It is, therefore, essential to better tailor community service to the unique needs of juveniles sentenced by the juvenile courts to have a real long term impact."

A plea for a revised vision of community punishment

Therefore, Koops-Geuze argues for a revised view on implementing community service sentences. "There is still more to gain from community service. In the future, for example, we could pay more attention to the elements of community service that are perceived as effective by youth offenders themselves, especially those elements also found to be effective in the long term."

"Focus on relationships and social needs"

The research shows several aspects of importance for the effectiveness of community service in relation to positive behaviour change, such as improving problem-solving skills, which can lead to improved decision-making skills in the long term. "Another important aspect that emerged is the importance of meaningful relationships with pro-social adults during the implementation of community service, such as community service supervisors. The relationship with the community service supervisor can have a long-term positive impact on youth offenders, something that has not yet been fully exploited."

"In addition, it is important to pay more attention to the underlying social needs of juveniles sentenced by the juvenile courts, especially those on the brink of young adulthood. These include bringing in sufficient educational attainment, adequate and stable job opportunities, and stable living situations for the future. Underlying social problems of this nature often remain unresolved, while that very thing, according to some of these youth offenders themselves, is a significant barrier to stopping crime in the longer term", Koops-Geuze said.

The last straw

"For community service to truly be the final straw that redirects juveniles sentenced by the juvenile court from a possible path to lifelong adult criminality, community service could be better tailored to the unique, underlying needs of these juveniles. And that could (or should) be better", Koops-Geuze said.

PhD student
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