Punishing juvenile delinquents

Punishing juvenile delinquents

In 2010 the Glen Mills treatment programme at a residential facility for juvenile delinquents in Wezep was cancelled. I contend that the Glen Mills method might work excellently in the Netherlands, but only if it is applied fully and without reservations.

On July 1, 2010 a controversial treatment programme at the residential facility for juvenile delinquents De Sprint in Wezep (NL) was cancelled. Called the Glen Mills method, this treatment programme aimed at guiding young delinquents back onto the right track. The Glen Mills method has been characterised as “the country’s most radical and, some say, its most effective answer yet to juvenile crime.”

However, a study by the Research and Documentation Centre in September 2007 revealed that the Glen Mills method, as it was applied at De Sprint in Wezep, was not significantly more successful than other correctional methods. The study showed that after four years 78% of the youths who had followed the treatment programme at De Sprint ended up re-offending. As Peter van der Laan, professor in social pedagogy at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, said in a 2008 interview with Vrij Nederland: “The methodology should change drastically. Question is whether one should keep referring to it as Glen Mills.”

I would take it one step further. In my view, the treatment process as it was applied at De Sprint at best qualifies as a half-baked rehash of the original Glen Mills method. In all likelihood, when former Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers argued in 1993 for so-called "camps" to drastically hone the personalities of delinquent adolescents, he had a firm, drastic and even, if needed, forceful intervention method in mind. Unfortunately such forceful intervention was deemed illegal. The method of “holding” in particular, in which hostile and uncooperative detainees are pinned to the floor, was qualified as “abuse.”

My contention is that the Glen Mills method might work excellently in the Netherlands, and might in fact yield the same positive results as it does in the United States. But it can only work if the method is applied entirely and without reservations. A less strict or severe version of the Glen Mills method has no chance of success. This is due to the specific character of Glen Mills which is aimed at the pursuit of honour and the avoidance of shame. As such, it is in fact not so different to the orientation towards honour and status as can be found in virtue ethics such as Aristotle’s. A major component of virtue ethics is to acquire good habits and to dispose of bad habits. It is commonplace that bad habits are learned much more easily than good habits. E.g., if one allows oneself to become furious and aggressive on a regular basis, one will be more liable to become an angry person. Once such a vice has become part of one’s character, unlearning it becomes quite a difficult task.

It is however not altogether impossible to unlearn vicious character traits. As Aristotle argues, this can only be done by being subjected to a very strict and rigid regime of reward and punishment. When progress is made in one’s behaviour, one will be rewarded with higher status and receive all due praise and recognition. In the Glen Mills method this can be achieved by good behaviour, learning a trade and successfully completing certain courses. The entire system is oriented towards the acquisition of status, pride and respect. But this takes a bold and resolute approach. Half-baked measures won’t cut it. Surely it is possible to set delinquent youths on the right track again, but that will not work unless the Glen Mills method is applied all the way and without reservations. After all, is it really so sad if a juvenile delinquent is pinned to the floor? The victim might thank the perpetrator later in his life!


Tom Knijp

Dear Ton and Maartje,

Thank you for your comments. The Glen Mills method has indeed been criticized (sometimes vehemently), and as regards its application in the Netherlands, not entirely without reason. However, upon closer examination it becomes clear that the statistics differ quite widely. See, e.g., A.D. Gerritsen, De Glen Mills School: in de (juiste) houding!?, in: Proces, 2005, Vol. 84(4), pp. 151-158. This seems a noteworthy contrast with studies like, e.g., the one that was conducted by the SP (Socialistische Partij) which resulted in the publication of a so-called "Zwartboek" containing a "detailed review of the abuse" that allegedly took place at De Sprint in Wezep.

Regardless of how such significant differences are to be explained, I do not believe it is prudent to cast aside centuries of pedagogical experience and common sense in favour of modern-day sentiments to the effect that misbehaving youths should be handled with the utmost respect and consideration. Throughout history, pride and respect have always been commodities to be earned instead of taken for granted. That is exactly what the Glen Mills method aims for, and it is exactly why the experiment at De Sprint in Wezep is such a missed opportunity.

Kind regards,

Ton Liefaard

Dear Tom,

I also would like to hear more about the scientific underpinning of your arguments. To be honest, I do not think there is scientific evidence that supports your arguments, in particular the claims that the Glenn Mills method has ‘positive results’ in the United States and that it is only possible to unlearn ‘vicious character traits (…) by being subjected to a very strict and rigid regime of reward and punishment’ (with reference to Aristotle). Without this evidence, I think your blog is one-sided and runs the risk of becoming tendentious. It not only disregards the growing body of scientific evidence on effective ('what works') and ineffective or even harmful programmes for youth offenders, but also other relevant perspectives, including the perspective of human rights.

Kind regards,
Ton Liefaard.

Maartje van der Woude

Dear Tom,

Thank you for your interesting post. Having researched juvenile boot camps myself - which Glen Mills resembles to a certain extent - I was wondering what sources you found for the supposed success of Glen Mills in the USA? In general, there is a very large and convincing body of research arguing against the often stated success and effectiveness of boot-camp style juvenile justice interventions.