Study by University of Warwick finds major differences and crucial weaknesses in the treatment of youngsters across the EU.
More specialist training is required for police, lawyers and judges involved in the interrogation of juvenile suspects across Europe, a researcher from the University of Warwick has found.
There is also a need for consistency in the way youths are safeguarded within the EU, with too much focus in some countries on the detainee as a suspect, rather than as a juvenile, academics claim.
The research, which forms part of a wider European project looking at juvenile justice, is being presented at a conference in Maastricht in The Netherlands today (Friday 16 January) by Professor Jacqueline Hodgson, from Warwick Law School, who led the study in England & Wales.
The investigation saw her scrutinise the English and Welsh system by carrying out focus group interviews with juveniles, lawyers, police and appropriate adults, as well as reviewing audio samples of police interrogations of young suspects.
She is now comparing it with other models in Belgium, Italy, Poland and The Netherlands, together with scholars from other universities who are jointly producing a report for the European Union.
Prof Hodgson explained: “Juvenile suspects are at their most vulnerable when they’re being interrogated by investigative authorities in criminal proceedings and what we’ve found is that there are big differences in the way youth justice is handled between the five particular countries we looked at.
“In some models there is more of a punitive or criminal mindset, with the detainee treated as a suspect, with little regard to their vulnerability as a child; whilst others centre more around education and welfare, with the detainee’s predominant status being that of a juvenile.”
The study found youth justice in England and Wales and The Netherlands to have a penal focus, with relatively small differences from the adult criminal procedure, whereas in Belgium and Poland they focused instead on protection and rehabilitation.
“The very definition of vulnerability also needs to be addressed,” added Prof Hodgson. “Children as young as 10 through to the age of 17 can be involved in the youth justice process and are subject to the same safeguarding measures but their needs are very different indeed – yet there is still a “one size fits all” approach.
“A lack of specialist training is a common issue across the board, together with a lack of clarity as to the role of those assisting the juvenile, such as lawyers and appropriate adults – who may range from parents to specially trained youth workers.
“The lines are also blurred when it comes to the actual questioning of juveniles and when, for example, that questioning turns into an interrogation. It’s not always obvious to the young person whether what they’re being asked is to be used as evidence against them or whether the purpose of the interview is for reasons of safeguarding. This must be made clearer.”
“And what are the motivations of law enforcement agencies when they put safeguarding measures in place for youngsters? Sometimes, we found, it’s based purely on the need to ensure the admissibility of evidence at court, rather than a genuine concern to protect the juvenile’s interests. So who is actually looking out for their welfare?
“The responsibility of appropriate adults is a particularly unclear role and varies dramatically across different countries. In England and Wales, for instance, the appropriate adult is a mandatory requirement and could be a parent, a volunteer or a professional – but there’s no training requirement – despite the challenging and legalistic nature of what’s involved. This haphazard approach cannot be right, when a child’s welfare is at stake.”
Following today’s conference, researchers will draft proposals for EU wide minimum rules and safeguards to provide effective protection for young suspects.
It is hoped that the outcome will ultimately influence national governments and EU policy-makers, as well as social services and law enforcement agencies across Europe.
Notes to Editors:
‘Protecting young suspects in interrogations’ is a two-year study co-ordinated by Maastricht University, in collaboration with the University of Warwick, as well as Antwerp University, Defence for Children, Jagiellonian University, Macerata University and PLOT Limburg.
Prof Jackie Hodgson researches and writes in the areas of criminal justice and comparative criminal justice, with particular emphasis on pre-trial procedures and the role of the defence. She has also researched the rights of suspects in Europe and the role the appropriate adult.
Issued by Lee Page, Communications Manager, Press and Policy Office, The University of Warwick. Tel: +44 (0)2476 574 255, Mob: +44 (0)7920 531 221. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.