(DISCLAIMER: This blog is not an official Fulbright Program blog; the views expressed are my own and not those of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations.)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Learning about the Romanian Juvenile Justice System

A discussion broke out in class last night.  Since it was in Romanian, and only one student felt confident enough with her English to translate, I only got the highlights.  But observing the energetic (heated) conversation, I can surmise my class discussion got wrapped up in some leftover issues.  But hey, it's better than the cow eyes I have been getting from students when I ask questions in class.

We were discussing how to incorporate family therapy interventions into the juvenile justice process.  This was a class on Treatment and Rehabilitation for Juvenile Delinquents. Students from three Master's programs in the Faculty of Social Work take this class: Evidence-Based Clinical Social Work; Social Work with Justice System, Probation, and Mediation; and Children's Rights.  The Justice students were seated on the left side of class while the Clinical Social Work students were seated on the right. We were discussing when in the arrest-arraignment-court  process would be the best time to intervene to rehabilitate the youth.

The first heated discussion broke out among three MSW Justice System students about factual details about the justice procedures.  It looked to me that these students were engaging in a one-up-man-ship of "I know better than you do," about tiny details of the justice process.

Throughout the discussion, the Justice students engaged with vigor while the Clinical Social Work students stared at the floor. 

Some things that I learned about the juvenile justice system:  There is no separate juvenile justice system in Romania.  Juvenile criminal cases are tried in the general court system on the docket with adult criminal trials and civil suits.  Youth 14 and over can be tried for serious or persistent criminal activity, and youth over 16 are sentenced to serve in the Romanian prison system.  A second debate broke out among the three students about whether there was a separate prison for youth or they were kept in a special wing of an adult prison.  Most commonly youth crimes are dealt with by the police by holding the youth at the police station for 12 to 15 hours in hopes that the harsh experience will deter any future misconduct.  That's the extent of Juvenile Offender Intervention and Rehabilitation. 

They said that the prosecutor decides, based on the severity of the crime and the evidence, whether to bring charges and take the case to court.  If the prosecutor decides not to move forward, charges are dropped and apparently no record is kept of the arrest.  However, they said that the police stations are small enough that the police officers will remember which youth have been in the station repeatedly, and repeated criminal offenses will be sufficient to bring the charges to court.  So it seems like the police officers also have a great deal of discretion whether to collect evidence and inform the prosecutor of the offense history.  I don't know how closely the police officers work with the prosecutors.  But it seems clear to me, from the student information, that the police officers exercise considerable discretion and the prosecutors exercise considerable discretion and most juvenile offenses get treated by the "hold them and make them sweat" intervention.

It would be an interesting dissertation to examine the effectiveness of the "make them sweat" intervention.

The students said with confidence that the police or the prosecutors had no authority to require any rehabiltative intervention as a condition of whether the charges would move forward.  They only had authority to bring charges or to release with no conditions and no record.  The American system of deferred adjudication, in which the charges would be dropped if no subsequent criminal act occurred and the offender completed some rehabilitative activities, was a foreign concept to them.

I also asked the students in the Social Work with Justice System program to try to get me an invitation to meet a prosecutor, police officer who deals with juveniles, or attend a juvenile court hearing.

The third heated discussion to break out was over the value of intervention: A student expressed a variation of "they made their choices and have to deal with the consequences.  Lock them up and let them rot.  Rehabilitation is a waste of time."  It certainly ended that round of discussion, and I did one of those, "OK, let's move on to the next topic"  responses.  It certainly was an minority opinion in a room full of do-gooder students wanting to learn Treatment and Rehabilitation for Juvenile Delinquents.  But I imagine it was a common sentiment among Romanian society, just as it is among many of the "tough on crime" crowd in American society.

The theory that is behind my line of questions is the Sequential Intercept Model of Juvenile Offender Rehabilitation.  Fancy title for an approach that looks at the procedures that take place after the police are called through the court hearing to identify the places in the process that mental health needs can be "Intercepted."  The underlying assumption, not shared in the classroom, is that it a good thing to divert youth from the justice system toward some interventions that enable them to change their life direction.

The assumptions of the American juvenile justice system, since the first Juvenile Court Act of 1899, is that it is in the culture's best interests to allow youth offender to grow out of this difficult phase.  American juvenile justice process leans heavily on deferred adjudication, which if the youth stays to the straight and narrow for 90 days or 6 months, all charges are dropped and there is no record of the incident.   Often the deferred adjudication will have conditions of mental health counseling to assist the youth and family in making the necessary changes. 

I concluded the class by addressing the (uncomfortably) silent Clinical Social Work students, "Your friends in the criminal justice system (nodding to the left side of the class) need to know that you can help them by intervening with troubled youth and diverting them from a life of crime.  They seem to think intervention is not possible.  You social workers need to show the justice system that it is possible and it saves the state a lot more money to intervene early in a youthful criminal's career than to incarcerate them after they develop a long list of crimes.  You social workers need to work together with your professional association to get your politicians to understand what you can do and pass laws that allow police and prosecutors to use what you have to offer."

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