Professor Stefaan Pleysier

Juvenile justice between rehabilitation and responsibilisation

This contribution departs from a brief overview of the juvenile justice system and legislation in Belgium. The Belgian model is often referred to and described as ‘the archetypical example of a juvenile justice system based on welfare protectionism’, while at the same time ‘a fairly good example of the hesitations that are reflected in juvenile (criminal) justice developments in Europe’ (Christiaens et al., 2011; Cartuyvels et al., 2010).

Stefaan Pleysier

This brief overview or history ends with the sixt state reform and a (for the moment) final step, that is the devolution of juvenile justice legislation to the language-based communities in the country. These reforms are to a large extent indicative of a shift within European juvenile justice systems from traditional protectionist and welfare oriented approaches towards more ‘hybrid’ models, that combines rehabilitative, punitive, children’s rights-based and restorative elements in dealing with youth delinquency.

In my contribution I will mainly focus on two of the grand objectives of the 2019 Flemish youth delinquency decree, i.e. the ambition to build an evidence based youth justice system, and the emphasis on the responsibility of young offender. The message that I will try to convey is that a naive believe in evidence based youth justice runs the risk of ‘reduction’: the reduction of a complex social reality to an isolated individual responsibility, to a behavioural problem, and to quantifiable and measurable ‘indicators’.

There is a danger associated to this that juvenile justice interventions based on this approach might solely focus on risks, deficits and individual failures surrounding the question ‘why did you do it?’.

Inspired by i.a. Ward & Maruna (2007) and Braithwaite & Roche (2001), I will argue for rehabilitation from a more realist view on evidence based youth justice and a complementary, broader and more active and prospective understanding of the notion of responsibility revolving the question ‘what is to be done?’.

Braithwaite, J., & Roche, D. (2001). Responsibility and Restorative Justice. In G. Bazemore & M. Schiff (Eds.), Restorative community justice: Repairing harm and transforming communities (pp. 63-84). Cincinnati: Anderson Publishing Co.

Cartuyvels, Y., Christiaens, J., De Fraene, D., & Dumortier, E. (2010). Juvenile justice in Belgium seen through the sanctions looking-glass. In F. Bailleau & Y. Cartuyvels (Eds.), The criminalisation of youth. Juvenile justice in Europe, Turkey and Canada (pp. 29–58). Brussel: VUB Press.

Christiaens, J., Dumortier, E., & Nuytiens, A. (2011). Belgium. In F. Dünkel, J. Grzywa, P. Horsfield, & I. Pruin (Eds.), Juvenile justice systems in Europe. Current situations and reform developments (Vol. 1, 2nd ed., pp. 99–130). Mönchengladbach: Forum Verlag Godesberg.

Ward, T., & Maruna, S. (2007). Rehabilitation. Beyond the risk paradigm. London: Routledge.


Stefaan Pleysier is professor of criminology at the Faculty of Law and Criminology at KU Leuven. He coordinates, together with Johan Put, the Research line on Youth Justice at the Leuven Institute of Criminology; since October 2016, he is also director of the Leuven Institute of Criminology. 

His teaching focusses on youth criminology, juvenile justice and research methods in the Bachelor and Master in Criminology. His main research interests likewise include youth delinquency, juvenile justice and the criminalization of behaviour.

Stefaan Pleysier was previously a MacCormick Fellow at Edinburgh Law School at the University of Edinburgh, and ‘chercheur invité’ at the Centre International de Criminologie Comparée (CICC) at the Université de Montréal.