‘These sentences send out a strong signal’
The imposed maximum juvenile detention sentences in the infamous ‘Linesman-case’ give rise to the question whether retribution, general deterrence and compensation for a shocked society can be considered legitimate objectives of Dutch juvenile justice.
An amateur youth football match turns into a nightmare. A raging group of under-aged players severely assaults a 41-year old volunteer linesman, father of one of the opponents’ players. A few days later, the linesman dies in a nearby hospital. The violent incident immediately dominates the news headlines and causes a massive shock in Dutch society. In the following days, the police makes several arrests. Eventually, seven suspects, of whom six are under-aged, have to remain in custody on suspicion of manslaughter.
The Court’s verdict
On the 17th of June 2013 – almost seven months after the incident and under huge media attention – the district court Midden Nederland announced its verdict in the ‘Linesman-case’. Six minors and one adult have been found guilty of manslaughter. The minors have been sentenced to juvenile detention for a period of – depending on their age – 12 to 24 months, which are the maximum detention sentences in the Dutch juvenile justice system. The Court has based these sentences primarily on the severity of the case and the fact that it has caused an immense shock in society. In a first reaction to the verdict, the Public Prosecutor’s Office stated that it was ‘very satisfied’ with the imposed maximum sentences, which ‘send out a strong signal’.
Retribution, general deterrence and compensation for society
In the Court’s justification of the imposed sentences and the reaction of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, elements of retribution, general deterrence and compensation for a shocked society can be recognised. It reflects the Court’s and Prosecutor’s conviction that these juvenile offenders deserve to be seriously punished and – perhaps even more importantly – that the sentences should make clear that such an assault does not remain unpunished within the Dutch justice system. This type of reasoning is not surprising, given the severity of the case and the huge media attention. But is it in compliance with the pedagogical character of Dutch juvenile justice?
The pedagogical character of Dutch juvenile justice
The Dutch juvenile justice system can be distinguished from the adult criminal justice system by its pedagogical ‘offender-oriented’ approach, in which specific deterrence is considered to be the primary objective. Juvenile justice interventions should be ‘tailor made’, pedagogically effective and lead to improvement of behaviour and recidivism reduction amongst juvenile offenders. This relates to the central position of the notion of ‘best interests of the child’ in the Dutch juvenile justice system, which entails that interventions should aim at having a positive effect on the minor’s development or at least not to be damaging.
Sentencing; striking a balance
This central notion of ‘best interests of the child’ does not, however, imply a purely welfare-oriented approach. The Dutch juvenile justice system has to be considered as a criminal justice system for minors. This means that the ‘best interests of the child’ is not the only consideration of importance in sentencing decisions. When determining an appropriate sentence in a juvenile justice case, societal and (other) criminal justice interests – such as retribution, general deterrence and compensation for victims and society – have to be given due weight as well. Consequently, judicial decision makers have the complex task of striking a balance between the divergent interests at stake in each individual case, without losing touch with the pedagogical character of juvenile justice.
Severe cases that shock society
It is fair to say that the determination of sentences becomes even more complex in severe cases that caused a shock in society and receive a lot of media attention. In such cases an ‘offender-oriented’ approach will easily become sidelined on behalf of interests of retribution, general deterrence and compensation for victims and society. It becomes vital that the imposed sentence sends out the ‘right’ signal to society. This might pressure judges to impose severe sentences. It is questionable, however, whether such a punitive approach really serves the best interests of society in the long term. Severe sentences are certainly not always more effective. In fact, research indicates that long detention sentences for juveniles are not effective in terms of recidivism reduction (e.g. Weijers, Hepping & Kampijon 2010; Junger-Tas 2009).
So what do we want to achieve with sentencing in juvenile justice? The pedagogical character of juvenile justice prescribes an ‘offender-oriented’ approach with recidivism reduction as its most important objective, based on the notion that this serves both the ‘best interests of the child’ as well as the best interests of society in the long term. But is such a primarily ‘offender-oriented’ approach still defendable and appropriate in severe cases in which society demands punitiveness? The Court’s verdict in the ‘Linesman-case’ indicates that it is not.