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The study of juvenile delinquency in Belgium (SRDBEL)

Research project TA/00/21A (Research action TA)

Persons :

  • Prof. dr.  DE FRAENE Dominique - Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB)
    Coordinator of the project
    Financed belgian partner
    Duration: 1/12/2007-31/1/2010
  • Dr.  NAGELS Carla - Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB)
    Financed belgian partner
    Duration: 1/12/2007-31/1/2010
  • Dr.  CHRISTIAENS Jenneke - Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB)
    Financed belgian partner
    Duration: 1/12/2007-31/1/2010

Description :

The objective of this project is the study of juvenile delinquency in Belgium. This specific field of scientific research requires various statistical sources (both administrative and scientific).

Although administrative data such as crime statistics provide relevant information, they are not sufficient for satisfying the requirements of scientific research. They primarily measure the activity of the services that produce them, rather than the reality of behaviours. A new measurement tool was consequently developed towards the middle of the 20th century, namely self-report studies of delinquency. These survey a representative sample of the population on its own delinquent behaviour. The surveys are carried out for the most part by means of a questionnaire administered in schools. Obviously, the anonymity of respondents is guaranteed. Self-report studies make it possible to zero in on real delinquency and more specifically undetected crime. A number of European countries systematically use this type of survey to delimit the phenomenon of juvenile delinquency more accurately.

In Belgium, there have been virtually no administrative statistics on juvenile delinquency for the past 25 years. For example, there is a serious deficit in police registration of delinquent crime data because age was not included as a variable in the context of the development of integrated statistics data bases. At the judicial level, the National Criminology and Crime Detection Institute (Institut national de criminologie et de criminalistique, INCC) recently developed a programme of systematic and standardised data registration. Since 2006, it has provided a clear picture of minors prosecuted for acts treated as offences, i.e. at a stage where the behaviours have already undergone a considerable selection and filtering process.

In terms of scientific sources, certain self-report studies have been carried out in Belgium but these are sporadic and not very systematic. They also suffer from a problem of representativeness, which means they do not give a view of the phenomenon of juvenile delinquency in all its complexity and variations (particularly territorial). Nor is it possible to cross-link this data with data collected at European level or elsewhere.

These shortcomings are particularly unfortunate in a context where juvenile delinquency, which is highly mediatised, is perceived as a major social and political challenge. Indeed, in most Western countries, and in Europe in particular, the subject of juvenile delinquency is presented as one of particular concern. The often biased perception of an increase in this delinquency and of its seriousness creates a state of tension in the public opinion. The opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on "The prevention of juvenile delinquency. Ways of dealing with juvenile delinquency and the role of the juvenile justice system in the European Union" of 15 March 2006 (Official Journal of the European Union, 2006/C 110/13) states in this connection that "it is essential to have up-to-date, comparable statistical data on the state of juvenile delinquency in the EU-25, to provide a reliable picture of the problem [and] its real dimensions". The development of a scientific measurement tool and systematic data collection makes it possible to compare types of behaviour and their frequency in different areas and to ensure long-term data that will reveal evolutions in the types and frequency of problematic behaviour.

This first large-scale survey will constitute "year zero" for this type of instrument, which will become systematic in Belgium. The deployment of a data collection and analysis tool capable of measuring at regular intervals the problematic behaviour of young people as they themselves report it, combined with the relaunch of judicial statistics thanks to the work of the INCC, will give the research team three diversified sources of data for its work.

Several stages are planned in order to bring this undertaking to successful conclusion:

1. A critical analysis of the different European publications on self-report surveys and of the methodological problems encountered, with the aim of determining best practice in the area. This phase will lead to the development of a relevant registration tool that takes account of local and national determinants, as well as international standards.

2. A practical test of the tool (on a limited but diversified sample) and its presentation to an international committee of experts in the field in order to identify any shortcomings and to make the necessary adjustments (both from the strictly methodological point of view and with a view to European integration).

3. The survey will be conducted on a representative sample of the juvenile population in Brussels, Flanders and Wallonia (around 10,000 questionnaires), together with 120 individual semi-directive interviews with young people not attending school. We will aim to improve the methodology of these surveys while supplementing them with interviews.

4. The analysis of the data collected and their comparison with local and national administrative data will give the most accurate picture possible of the morphology of juvenile delinquency in Belgium. This may then be compared to data compiled in other European countries. Most importantly though, the data may be used at local, community and federal level. This research will be useful for both police and justice officials dealing with minors and for education and youth assistance officials. This type of data will allow for evaluations and adaptations to public policies, both preventive and judicial, at the local level and beyond.

In general, this work may also be beneficiary to the public at large to the extent that objective knowledge of delinquency will help ensure that debate on the social issue of juvenile delinquency is based to a greater degree on the reality of the situation, rather than on emotional reactions.

In terms of dissemination, in addition to the usual reports and publications, round tables will be organised at local, regional and federal level, but most importantly the findings will be discussed with the practitioners and authorities concerned with the issue of juvenile delinquency. A website will also be created to present the methodological instrument, the analysis of the survey findings and related scientific publications. This site will be open for consultation by the actors and authorities involved in the problem of juvenile delinquency to ensure continuity in the use of the survey.

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