JUVENILE CRIME IN BELGIUM: TRENDS AND CAUSES
The consequences of this problematic data collection in Belgium become clear when statements on trends in juvenile crime have to be made. Two kind of sources might be used—official administrative data and self-report studies—but both show fundamental problems.
Official Administrative Data
Since the end of the 1980s, official statistics concerning youngsters prosecuted before the Belgian Youth Courts are simply lacking or non-existing. That is to say, we have no reliable (public) police and judicial data on the phenomenon and on the prosecution of juvenile delinquency. When available, official data remain fragmented (produced by several federal, regional and local authorities). Hence they are neither reliable nor comparable (Goedseels 2002: 30). Officially published police statistics do not specify age as a descriptive parameter. Thus, it is impossible to establish based on police statistics how many youngsters came into contact with the police and for which offences. Only regional data and fragmented figures exist, for example, regarding local phenomena of delinquency.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century a new governmental project on juvenile justice statistics resulted in a first report on (youth) prosecution figures for 2005 (Vanneste et al. 2007). The year 2005 can be considered as a reference year (zero). Although the published figures concern only the number of minors and the (delinquent and non-delinquent) “facts” that were reported to the public prosecution office by the police or by welfare agencies, it is a beginning. Based on these statistics we can draw a rough picture (and trend) of reported youth delinquency and welfare cases to the prosecution office between 2006 and 2014 (latest available: http://www.om-mp.be/stat). These statistics still have many flaws, such as the double counting of youngsters involved in different offenses and different youngsters in one and the same offense. Moreover, we remain without official data on the decisions taken during the juvenile justice procedure in Belgium.
As described above, the Belgian juvenile justice court has jurisdiction over youngsters (1) charged with committing “facts described as a penal offence”, (2) who are considered to be in danger. Between 2006 and 2010 cases of delinquency represented more than 50 % of all reported cases. Moreover, in the same period reported youth delinquency cases remain more or less stable, around 80,000 cases every year. However, 2011 was clearly a turning point. Since then reported youth delinquency cases are clearly decreasing. In 2014 less than 60,000 judicial cases of delinquency were reported to the public prosecutor, whereas in 2010 still over 80,000 judicial cases were registered. In 2006 about 46,000 (unique) minors were reported to the public prosecutor for offenses. This amount increased up to over and around 50,000 between 2007 and 2009. However, since 2010 the public prosecutors’ statistics show a steady decline of delinquent youngsters reported to the prosecutors’ office. In 2014 this decline is up to almost 20 % compared to 2006, with only 37,494 youngsters reported for delinquent facts.
Figure 12.1. Yearly statistic reported youth justice cases reported to the public prosecutor office (2006-2014): http://www.om-mp.be/stat.
Hence, and in line with other European countries and with general crime statistics, the major contemporary trend in Belgian reported youth delinquency is its obvious and clear decrease (Fig. 12.1).
However, it remains hazardous and may be even too early to explain this decline in registered youth crime over the last 4-5 years. As criminologists we need to stress that these administrative data tell us more about the activity of the judicial system and its selectivity, instead of the “phenomenon” of youth crime in our society. The Belgian judicial statistics on youth delinquency cases are merely a source in developing hypothesis on how trends can be further investigated. Moreover, it could be that this decline in youth delinquency cases is related to the increase of non-delinquent—welfare cases.
Reported youth delinquency cases are clearly “gendered”. In 2006 almost 80 % of the cases involved boys, whereas less than 20 % of the cases involved girls. However, in 2010, girls were involved in almost 22 % of the reported cases (Openbaar Ministerie 2012: De instroom van protectionele zaken op de jeugdpar- ketten (2006-2010); http://www.om-mp.be/stat). In 2014, girls still are involved in 20, 68 % of the registered cases (http://www.om-mp.be/stat). If we look at unique minors reported to the prosecutor for delinquent behaviour between 2006 and 2014 we notice a relative increase of girls compared to boys (2006: 21, 83 %; 2014: 23, 70 %), although both categories diminish in absolute numbers.
The available statistics do not make it possible to calculate the average age of all reported youngsters between 2006 and 2014. However, it is clear that over the same period of time the majority of youngsters reported for offenses to the public prosecutor are aged between 14 and 18. More than 45 % of all registered delinquency cases concern adolescents between 16 and 18 years old. In 2014 this age category increased proportionally to 49 % of all reported delinquency cases. It would also be an interesting hypothesis to analyse the decline in reported youth delinquency through the “age” looking glass. These statistics suggest that younger minors come (proportionally) less and less in contact with judicial authorities. The available statistics since 2006 confirm, however, the age-linked evolution of reported youth delinquency, showing an increase towards adolescence. They confirm the gender difference in the (registered) age-crime curve. Boys involved in delinquency cases peak more in the category of 16-18 years, whereas girls peak slightly more in the age category of 14-16.
Juvenile delinquency reported to the public prosecutor in 2014 concerns mainly property crimes (43 %), followed by offences against persons (20 %), drug- related offenses (13 %) and offences against public order and authorities (11 %). This classical pattern of registered youth delinquency is also reflected in the previous years. However, we can see that the category of property crimes proportionally declined (2006: 49 %) and offenses against persons increased slightly (2006: 16 %). Probably, the character of delinquent facts for which youngsters are caught and reported is an important line of analysis in understanding the overall decline of registered youth delinquency.
Although girls and boys have a comparable proportional profile concerning these categories of offenses, there are some interesting “gendered” differences throughout the considered period. Girls are more reported to the Public Prosecutor in 2014 for “simple theft” (31 %; in 2006: 30 %), than boys (17 %; in 2006: 16 %). Boys are more reported for “aggravated theft” (12 %, in 2006: 13 %) than girls (5 %, in 2006: 7 %).
Beyond this general image of reported youth delinquency cases in Belgium, it remains important to take into account local differences between judicial districts, and between the three Belgian communities in relation to the categories of cases (delinquent and non-delinquent) as well as the categories of offences.
-  In non-delinquent, so-called welfare, cases (problematic behaviour, predelinquency or victim situations) these gender differences are at a general level non-existent since long: boys represent slightlymore than half of the cases, whereas girls are involved in less than 50 % of all cases.