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Juvenile Violence Increasingly Hard to Deal with in Western Europe - 2002-12-22


Fears of spiraling crime and juvenile delinquency became a top campaign issue in French general elections this year. Among the first measures the new conservative government enacted was a series of tough penalties for young offenders. But France is hardly the only European country grappling with new ways to combat juvenile violence.

It is an unremarkable morning at Malakoff House, a drab-looking rowhouse in a working class suburb of Paris. Two of the home's five teenagers, to make up for the years they have spent outside the French school system, are studying math with a tutor. Two others are at school, where classmates are unaware of their criminal records. And Malakoff's director, Frederic Pierpaoli, has just notified local authorities about the fifth, a 16-year-old boy who ran away from the house the night before.

The boy's disappearance represents one small, but unsurprising, setback for supporters of juvenile justice experiments like Malakoff house.

France is not alone in trying to find new ways to fight juvenile crime. In much of Western Europe, the concerns are the same: More children are committing more serious offenses, at younger ages. Reactions from children's rights advocates across Europe are similar - that governments are locking up too many youngsters in prison or in other closed institutions.

French juvenile judge Jean-Pierre Rosenczveig shares that belief. He has spent 30 years judging young offenders in the Paris suburb of Bobigny. Increasingly, he believes, French and other European governments are moving toward more repressive measures against minors.

In France, concerns about rising juvenile violence were popular campaign themes in spring presidential and legislative elections. Those concerns helped explain the stunning success of law-and-order candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen. Mr. Le Pen, head of the far-right National Front Party, placed second in presidential elections, behind French President Jacques Chirac.

President Chirac's conservative government quickly rolled out tough measures to combat juvenile crime on the streets, and in schools. The most controversial decisions included lowering legal prison age from 16 to 13 years old, and establishing new juvenile prisons, along with special "education centers" for troubled children as young as 10.

At Malakoff house, director Pierpaoli offers a mixed assessment of the new sanctions. He says special prisons for youths are a good idea. But he also thinks 13 is too young to go to prison. He believes the new closed centers, which should open in a few months, will be little different from the four-month rehabilitation program at Malakoff house.

From early morning until bedtime, the five teenagers at the house are supervised by a network of social workers, psychologists and teachers. They cook and eat together. They go on hiking and skiing trips together. They are scolded for not cleaning their rooms. Perhaps for the first time, Mr. Pierpaoli says, these youths are living "normal" lives.

All of these youngsters have criminal records, many have spent time in jail. Mr. Pierpaoli considers it a success when a teenager has committed no new infractions for a year after leaving the Malakoff program. He says that only happens about 60 percent of the time.

European analysts like Manuel Eisner believe there is no single, successful solution to tackling juvenile delinquency. An expert in juvenile violence at Cambridge University in England, Mr. Eisner is working with the Swiss canton of Zurich to develop a program for young offenders.

"If there is something like a common European philosophy, it would probably be: 'Yes, we have to think more clearly about repressive measures of controlling youth delinquency, and probably also think about more punitive measures.' But on the other hand there is also a very strong feeling across most European countries that youth violence and youth delinquency has to be dealt with in ways that look at family risk-factors, in processes of social integration - that look at prevention, rather than intervention," said Mr. Eisner.

Britain is among the European countries mixing tough sanctions with new experiments to prevent juvenile crime in the first place.

In 1998, the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair introduced a controversial and far-reaching law known as the Crime and Disorder Act. It included a slew of punitive measures, such as curfews and electronic tracking bracelets for minors, and sanctions against some parents of young offenders. But it also included sports and theater projects to keep children off the streets, and special community teams of police and social workers to help young people.

Many of the initiatives have drawn praise from children's rights groups, like the London-based Howard League. "Much of the experiments in restorative justice and in finding alternative ways in community sanctions dealing with young people and children are very good," said Frances Crook, director of the league, which is fighting to reform Britain's penal system. "The problem is it hasn't gone along with a reduction of youths in custody."

In fact, the Howard League and others regularly criticize Britain for having among the most punitive juvenile justice systems in Western Europe. The prime minister's wife, human rights lawyer Cherie Blair, also criticized the government recently for "having the worst records in Europe for locking up children."

Children's rights advocates in Britain won a victory in November, when a British high court ruled a 1989 law protecting children must extend to those in prison.

The ruling was particularly satisfying for Yvonne Scholes, whose son Joseph committed suicide in a British prison last March. "How more extreme could it be than Joseph's circumstances? Here was a boy who'd been raped and sexually abused for all those years, who was showing extreme mental depression. He actually slashed his face 30 times three weeks before going to court," she said. "So as he stood in the court he had all these slashes on his face. Yet still the judge decided to send him into a custodial situation."

Few children end up in prison in Switzerland. The country has among the most progressive juvenile laws in Europe. Each of its 26 cantons may implement the legislation as they see fit. But, according to Geneva juvenile judge Anne-Francoise Compte-Fontana, the goals remain the same.

Judge Compte-Fontana says Switzerland's penal code for juveniles is centered not on the crime or infraction itself, but why the youngster committed it. The solution, she says, aims at finding educational alternatives to prison. These may include community service or school detentions. Swiss judges may also suggest mediation programs between juvenile offenders and their victims - part of a popular new trend known as restorative justice.

The Swiss parliament is now considering draft legislation that raises the age of criminal responsibility from seven to 10 years old - a pro-forma measure, experts say, since Switzerland rarely judges minors under 12. But the bill would also raise the maximum prison sentence for juveniles from one to four years.

And in Geneva, Judge Compte-Fontana worries times are changing. She is seeing more adolescents with psychological problems. She is also seeing more parents who no longer want to care for their children. Ultimately, she believes, Switzerland's progressive experiments in treating minors may be too expensive, and unrealistic for more crime-ridden countries elsewhere in Europe.

Part of VOA's Yearend Series

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