Katharina Neissl and Simon S. Singer
Juvenile delinquency is a global phenomenon, and interest in comparative studies of juvenile offending and society’s reaction to it has been steadily growing, despite the inherent difficulties of comparing juvenile justice processes across different regions. Both adolescence and the concept of juvenile delinquency are social constructs that vary by time and place. To know what constitutes a juvenile, or a delinquent act, requires detailed knowledge of a jurisdiction’s social, political, cultural, and legal history. International data in the form of officially recorded contact of juveniles with formal institutions are scarce, and they are often limited in their use for direct comparisons, due to divergent definitions and recording practices, or coverage of geographical regions. The United Nations Surveys on Crime Trends and the Operations of Criminal Justice Systems (UN-CTS) have the widest geographical reach, but lack transparency of definitions or verification. The World Prison Brief by the Institute for Policy Research at Birkbeck University of London provides prison trends around the globe, but only offers one indicator of juvenile imprisonment. The Council of Europe Annual Penal Statistics (SPACE) and the European Sourcebook of Crime and Criminal Justice Statistics collect data on a range of custodial and non-custodial measures, and include detailed notes on national definitions, but are limited to Europe. The largest self-report study of youth is the International Self-Report Delinquency (ISRD) study, which is currently in its third wave that includes 40 countries across the globe.
Since 1990 the United Nations has developed international conventions, rules, and guidelines that govern the rights of children, particularly as they relate to juvenile justice, and these guidelines have shaped, and continue to shape, juvenile justice processes across the globe. Almost all regions in the world have provisions to treat juveniles violating the law differently from adults, but they do so in a multitude of ways. Not all countries have separate systems for juveniles and adults, and in some regions of the world informal reactions to juvenile law-breaking dominate, or coexist with formal juvenile justice institutions. Juvenile justice systems are often categorized according to their founding philosophies, between the poles of a welfare and protection approach on one extreme, and a crime control and justice approach on the other. However, such classifications mask important differences between countries, and can only be seen as broad generalizations. In order to capture the intricacies of existing systems, and compare them between jurisdictions, a localized approach to juvenile justice is needed. It is not sufficient to describe which legal orientations or traditions inform a system, but rather it is necessary to examine how these traditions (as well as global trends and pressures) are interpreted by local juvenile justice administrators. Comparative juvenile justice research that can contribute to public debates and to achieving better outcomes for juveniles across the globe needs to be localized, pay special attention to the specific cultural, legal, and historical context of the jurisdiction studied, and differentiate between the law in theory and the law in practice.