Reflections on the Italian juvenile system
Last week I was in Milan with members of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System. We were there to look at the Italian juvenile justice system and its approach to girls. Whilst there we met the president of the juvenile and family court in Milan, lay magistrates, social workers and educators who worked with children who had transgressed the law. It was a fascinating two days and we learnt a lot.
The Italian juvenile justice system is very different from our own adversarial system. The juvenile courts deal with both civil and criminal cases. Professional and lay judges are specialists and are chosen for their expertise in understanding children and families. There are opportunities for children who have committed an offence to be pardoned or to have the slate wiped clean throughout the process. The professionals we met recognised that teenagers could be difficult but their behaviour was regarded as part of the normal process of adolescence. The aim of the juvenile justice system is to reintegrate and re-educate children, not to punish them.
The Italian courts recognise that girls and boys often commit misdemeanours as a cry for help. The judge can recommend that social services conduct an investigation of the child’s background and the circumstances that have led to the offence and ensure that a package of support is put in place for the child and also for the parents if necessary. This is expensive but it is recognised that if you tackle the social and welfare problems you save in the long term as the child will not end up in the adult penal system. This is unlike the system in England and Wales where the youth court is separated from the family court and youth court magistrates have no powers to deal with welfare issues.
We sat in during a hearing for a teenage boy who had been charged with a minor sexual offence. He had spent a year in a residential community whilst on probation. Having heard from his lawyer, his social worker and psychologist, the judge was satisfied that he would not commit the same offence again so his crime was declared ‘extinct’ and was wiped clean. He left the court, free to go home with his parents.
I do have some misgivings about a benevolent system which does not always listen to the views of young people or take account of their human rights. However, the reoffending rates for children are extremely low compared to England and Wales. In Lombardy the rate of recidivism is just four per cent. Far fewer children end up in the Italian penal system in the first place and those that do have the opportunity to go forward into adulthood with no criminal record. Far fewer children end up in penal custody with all its tragic and damaging consequences.