Approaching Youth Crime through Welfare and Punishment: The Finnish Perspective


Approaching Youth Crime through Welfare and Punishment: The Finnish Perspective

Johanna Korpinen and Tarja Pösö


In a recent legal article, Kimmo Nuotio (2004) noted that only a couple of years ago it would have seemed strange to use such a concept as youth criminal justice in Finland. Even now the concept is used inconsistently and no wide agreement exists yet as to what it means. Despite this fact – or perhaps because of it – youth criminal justice is at present a focus of attention within academic literature.

The recent use of this concept demonstrates that we are living through an era of change. Youth crime policy and its associated systems and practices go back as far as the end of the nineteenth century – if not even earlier (Harrikari 2004a) – with the fundamental legislation having been established in the early part of the twentieth century. Since then Finland has generally approached youth crime by keeping separate the justice and child protection measures and systems. Of the two, the tasks and duties of child protection are much wider. However, recent policy proposals suggest that the role of child protection and the justice system should be rethought and that new approaches should be developed. When the Ministry of Justice launched a commission to reassess the Finnish juvenile justice system in 2001, the aim was to establish a more rehabilitative perspective (Marttunen 2004).

These challenges for change are set against a social, economic and cultural situation where deep concerns about the state of well-being of children and young people have been debated to a great extent both in the mass media as well as academically (Bardy, Salmi and Heino 2001; Järventie and Sauli 2001). There have been reports about the deterioration of welfare and educational services for children, young people and families, who have traditionally been the key target for the Nordic welfare states through social services and income transfers. The core of concern has been directed towards the social stratification of families and childhood. Poverty among families with children increased sharply during the 1990s (Sauli, Bardy and Salmi 2002). It is estimated that 17 per cent of children and young people under the age of 18 experience or witness violence in their homes (Oranen 2001). Furthermore, unemployment is high among young people: in fact, there are regions where every third young person under the age of 24 is unemployed (Suutari 2002). Children and young people have become increasingly polarised into those who have many psychosocial problems of various kinds and those who live a safe childhood with many educational, cultural and social opportunities.

The issues of youth crime and child protection are thereby located at a juncture of debates, changes and crises of different types concerning the role of formal society and the social position of youth. This chapter aims to describe these ongoing discussions as well as to present the systems and practices for dealing with youth crime. The opening section will look at, first, child protection and, second, youth crime from the point of view of the relevant legislation and systems, together with the issues those institutions deal with. The second section will discuss some of the current tendencies and contradictions in policies for children and young people.

Child care and protection


The Finnish system for child care has a long history in family and population policy. At present, child care consists of a variety of services and benefits targeted at children and families with children (Millar and Warman 1996). Most of the services and benefits, universalist by their nature, are meant for all children and families. Child protection is directed especially to children and families in trouble and in need but, even so, the approach is broad.

The legislation that governs Finnish child protection is both national and international. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 and the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as the Finnish Constitution provide the basic principles that also direct the practices of child protection work. The leading principle in the so-called ‘child laws’ in Finland, the Child Welfare Act 1983 and the Child Custody and the Rights of Access Act 1983, is the best interest of the child. For their part, the general laws of social welfare (e.g. the Social Welfare Act 1982 and the Act on Client’s Position and Rights in Social Welfare 2000) play a major role in defining the rights of clients and the obligations for local authorities to act.

The starting point of Finnish child protection is that it covers all children in society and that it should extend to schools, the health services, housing policy, the family and culture. All children under 18 years of age are covered and in some cases even persons under 21. Despite the wide nature of the concept, the Child Welfare Act 1983 set out specific criteria specifying when the local authorities have to intervene. According to the Act, family-orientated and individual child welfare comprises assistance in ‘open care’, taking into care, substitute care and aftercare (Section 8).

Open care

In Finland, support for children and families who are considered to be in need of child protection services is provided through so-called ‘open care’, which is roughly equivalent to family support in the UK. Open care covers a wide range of services, from assistance at home to temporary placement in foster or residential care. The need for open care measures are met if the health or development of a child or young person is endangered or not safeguarded by the environment in which she or he grows up, or if a child or young person endangers this environment through his or her behaviour (Section 12). This means that when social workers are informed (for example, via school, neighbours or a child health clinic) of a child who may be in need of some kind of support they will contact the family. If there is a need for help or support, open care measures can then be considered. This may take the form of, for example, financial support, lay helpers, support families, therapy, assistance in education and training, job and house finding, leisure activities or temporary placement outside the home (for a maximum of six months). Social workers are also obliged to make a care plan that should be revised regularly together with the child and the parents.

Open care is voluntary and there are no time limits for its duration. It may last only a short time or continue for several years. Open care is a mixture of support and control and therefore its intensity varies depending on the situation. If open care measures prove to be inadequate, there is the option that the child is taken into care by the local authorities, even against the child’s or the parents’ will. However, Hurtig (2003) argues that open care measures may last several years even if the requirements for taking into care have been met earlier. The strong emphasis on supporting whole families may in some cases neglect children’s individual needs. Despite these problems, open care creates the basis for Finnish child protection social work with the ultimate aim of solving and preventing problems before they become too serious.

Taking into care and substitute care

Taking into care means that the local authorities become responsible for the child’s care and upbringing away from the child’s own home. It can occur only if all three of the following preconditions are fulfilled: the child’s health or development has been seriously endangered; the open care measures taken have proved to be inappropriate or inadequate; substitute care is deemed to be in the best interest of the child (Section 16). Substitute care may take the form of foster care, residential care or some other appropriate form of care. Compared with Sweden and Norway, a relatively large number of children are placed in residential care in Finland. In 2002, 57 per cent of the children in substitute care were in institutions and 45 per cent in foster care (Rousu and Holma 2003). Substitute care terminates when the child reaches 18 years of age, or earlier if it is considered there is no longer such a need.


The local authorities are also required to provide aftercare for children or young persons who have been in substitute care. The idea is to support both the child and the parents in everyday life when the child returns to his or her home or moves to his or her own apartment. The help and support is provided through ‘open care’. Financial support and different types of sheltered homes are important forms of assistance for young people. The obligation ends when the young person turns 21.

The system of child protection

Historically, the social welfare boards have been important actors in carrying out child protection work. Their role was defined in the first child protection law in 1936, since when they have been central decision-makers concerning child protection issues. Prior to 1936, children’s well-being was based mostly on the patriarchal and autonomous family. On the whole, only orphans and children abandoned by their parents were taken into public care as part of poor relief. Children who had committed criminal offences were looked after by the justice system (Hearn et al. 2004).

The law of 1936 gave the local authorities the right to remove a child from his or her parents into the care of local authorities (Forsberg 1998). It emphasised the need to protect children from their parents, and contact with the biological parents was not seen as being important. The guardianship of the child was transferred to the social welfare board, which meant both the custody of the child and the administration of his or her property. The new Child Welfare Act 1983 abandoned the old problem-based perspective and broadened the idea of child protection. In particular, it emphasised preventive work, which is the cornerstone of the current system.

Social welfare boards are part of the local administration. The seats on the board are occupied by politically elected lay people. The number of seats for each political party is based on the percentage won in the civic elections. The board is responsible for overseeing the operations and finances of its specific sector. The board can, however, delegate its decision-making power to municipal office-holders, that is to say social workers, except when the measures are compulsory. Therefore, social workers have a lot of discretionary power to decide when and how to intervene. The board itself will handle child protection issues if a child is taken into care against the parents’ will or if a child over 12 years of age opposes the taking into care or has not been heard. The board can hear different parties in their meetings, but it is not obligatory. The board has to submit its decision to the Provincial Administrative Court within 30 days, which may also arrange oral hearings. However, in most cases, the Court’s decisions are based on documents.

The functions of the welfare board have been criticised for contravening Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, on fair trial. There have also been doubts regarding whether lay people are sufficiently qualified to make decisions concerning difficult family situations, especially in small communities. It has been said that lay people do not possess the kind of expertise that decision-makers need; however, this critique is not based on any research and there are no studies of how the boards actually work. There are also contradictory views of what kind of expertise counts and what qualifications decision-makers need. Proposals have been made to transfer all the decisions concerning the taking into care of children from the municipal boards to the administrative courts except in cases of emergency care orders (Oikeusturva-asiain 2001). However, opposing views suggest this would have negative effects on child protection work carried out at a local level. From a social work perspective it might increase ‘legalism’ (for example, the use of solicitors would increase) and reduce the discretionary powers of social workers. On the other hand, it could clarify the decision-making process, clearly identify social workers as the children’s advocates and lessen the differences between municipalities.

Although municipalities are responsible for official child protection work, different voluntary organisations, the Church and private service providers are also important actors in the field of child protection. They provide information and training, carry out research and sell services to municipalities.

Children, families and social work methods in child protection

The clients of child protection services could be described as a last resort when universal services have failed (Forssen 1998). The recession at the beginning of the 1990s resulted in many cuts in social service provision while also heightening the number of child protection problems (Bardy et al. 2001). Therefore the need for services increased but there were fewer resources with which to respond. The cuts have not been compensated for, even though the number of children in open care has more than doubled in ten years. There were 23,456 children in open care in 1992 and by 2002 it was 54,458 children (4.9% of all children under the age of 18) (Sosiaali- ja terveydenhuollon 2003). The clientele in open care has also become long term, which suggests that the problems are more severe (Bardy et al. 2001).

There are two specific age groups that seem to arouse concern and need for action: the very young and adolescents (Bardy et al. 2001). For example, in 2002, 42 per cent of placements outside the home concerned young people aged 12–17 (Sosiaali- ja terveudenhuollon 2003). Family conflicts, alcoholism and problems in daily care are the major problems experienced by this group (Bardy et al. 2001). In the case of small children, the typical reason for intervention is a lack of basic care and welfare, while for adolescents, antisocial behaviour, substance abuse and difficulties at school are typical (Laakso and Saikku 1998).

Although a child could be taken into care after committing an illegal act, this has rarely been used as the primary reason. Crimes represented only 1 per cent of all the care decisions that have been made in Helsinki in recent years (Nuorisorikostoimikunnan mietintö 2003). A recent study (Pösö 2004) analysing a small number of formal documents articulating the reasons for young people’s placements in reform schools suggests that crimes were referred to as reasons much more rarely in 2001–2002 than in 1989–1990. The explanation may be found simply in the discursive practices of social work. Although ‘criminality’ was not used as a reference for intervention, there were notions about ‘uncontrollable and aggressive behaviour’, among others. The young people might still have committed crimes (Kitinoja 2004) but these are not categorised in formal documents as the main reasons for placements. As Finnish child protection practice nowadays uses more holistic and interpretive descriptions of problems, the role of crimes has become less visible.

While there is ongoing discussion about the limited resources in child protection work, there are also several projects that aim at improving child welfare practices. One of the leading themes has been to develop a child-orientated way of working, by which is meant spending more time seeing and listening to children, as well as making parents aware of the children’s needs and feelings. As a result, several books about direct work with children have been published recently (e.g. Möller 2004; Muukkonen and Tulensalo 2004). Family Group Conferences have also been developed to meet the needs of children and to get together people who are in position to support the child or young person in his or her life at home (Heino 2000). The experiences of the conferences have proved to be successful. Furthermore, different practice models have been developed to visualise and standardise child protection (Rousu and Holma 2004). The training of social workers has been expanded in such a way that professional social workers with master’s degrees may specialise in child and youth social work by doing a four-year training programme at university, leading to a Licentiate Degree.

Most importantly, the government of Finland has committed itself to giving priority to child protection within social welfare for the five-year period starting 2004 (Valtioneuvoston periaatepäätös 2003). This major programme aims to improve key areas of the child protection services.

Youth crime and the juvenile justice system


There are three different age categories in the Finnish juvenile justice system: children under the age of 15 (the age of criminal responsibility), young persons between 15 and 17, and young offenders between 15 and 20. As can be seen, the category of young offenders is the most important as it covers all the young people who are seen as responsible for their crimes. The category of young persons is needed because, before reaching the age of adulthood at the age of 18, the young people are entitled to child protection measures and the criminal procedure is slightly different from that used with young people between the ages of 18 and 20.

The main (non-parental) responsibility for the care and supervision of minors committing crimes belongs to the social welfare authorities and not to the criminal law authorities. Young persons can be subject to either criminal law sentences or a variety of care and protection measures, whereas children under 15 are subject only to care and protection measures. Young offenders between the ages of 18 and 20 are subject to some special features of the criminal procedure and may be sent to juvenile prison (Marttunen 2004).

The notion of juveniles as a special category of offenders can be traced back as far as the eighteenth century (Harrikari 2004a). Towards the end of the nineteenth century the differentiation of children and adults became stronger (Harrikari 2004b). The Penal Code of 1889 set the age of 15 as the point at which criminal responsibility could be established. Similarly, a growing number of statements argued that children required special consideration as offenders. Meanwhile, in the context of the care of poor people, ‘poor houses’ were starting to be divided into adult and children units, while special institutions such as reform schools for offending and delinquent children were also being established.

In international terms, the end of the nineteenth century was the era when the systems and practices for dealing with ‘delinquent’ children were established, with Chicago and Norway as the leading examples (Dahl 1985; Morris and McIsaac 1978; Platt 1967). Finland, by contrast, introduced its own laws much later. The first child protection law was established in Finland in 1936, stating that children committing crimes form a special category for child protection interventions. The distinction was clear: the criminal system was to look after the legal responses to youth crime while the child protection system would look after the well-being of children and young people in those cases where the crimes might be a threat of some kind to the young person him/herself or his/her environment (Nuotio 2004). The second and latest child protection law is 20 years old now, with a less specific approach to youth criminality than before. At present, legislation concerning young offenders is undergoing fundamental change with the variety of sentences widening. Similarly, there are pressures to introduce major changes to child protection legislation as well.

The youth justice system

In keeping with the legal distinctions outlined above, youth criminality is dealt with by two different systems: the child protection system, as part of municipal social welfare, and the justice system. Child protection services not only have the main role for minors below the age of 15 but play an important role for other young offenders too (Laitinen and Nyholm 1995). This reflects the Finnish view that youth crime is different in nature from adult crime (Nuorisorikostoimikunnan mietintö 2003).

Marttunen (2004) describes three elements of the justice system for young people. The first comprises the duties of the police department who investigate alleged offences. There is no special youth police department in Finland, although there can be arrangements at a local level for specialising in youth crime. In a criminal investigation, the police may question the young person, and apprehend, arrest and remand him or her in custody. When the person to be questioned is under the age of 18, the custodial parent and Social Welfare Board must be given the opportunity to be present. The Board should be informed about any crimes committed by minors. According to Tommo (2004), social workers react to the crimes differently depending on their seriousness and frequency. When the crime is interpreted to be part of the normal behaviour of young people very minimal or no action will be taken. However, if the social workers receive several reports from the police and the crimes are considered to be serious, different kinds of open care measures are used. The final outcome may be to take a child into the care of the local authorities but only if substitute care is seen to be serving the best interest of the child. The process then follows the same route as other child protection cases.

The second part of the justice system for young people consists of prosecution. The prosecutor may prosecute young people for offences, but may waive charges, or caution the offender in some cases. For each young person who is charged with an offence, including young adults, a specific personal investigation report must be prepared. The reports on young people under the age of 18 are prepared by the social welfare authorities, while the Probation Association prepares reports on young adults (18–20 years). The report describes the young person’s social situation as well as the circumstances of the offence. The position of these reports has been the focus of criticism by the Commission on Youth Crime because, among many other things, their contents are seen to vary considerably between the different agencies. Also such crime-focused reports are seen to threaten those young people who might experience them as a part of a labelling process (Nuorisorikostoimikunnan mietintö 2003). One of the proposals made by the Commission on Youth Crime has been to reshape the report in such a way that there would in fact be two reports: one prepared by the social welfare authorities concerning the social situation of the young person, and the other prepared by probation officers focusing on the issues concerning the crime and the recommended sentences. The Commission also challenges social welfare authorities to ensure that the offender gets all the services he or she might need.

The third part of the justice system for juveniles described by Marttunen (2004) is the local court, which hears cases that are prosecuted. Appeals are heard by the courts of appeal and the highest level is the Supreme Court. The normal composition of the local court in juvenile cases is one legally trained judge and three lay judges. The composition may change according to the seriousness of the case, but a legally trained judge should always preside (Marttunen 2004). If the minor is held to be responsible for the offence, the only option is to pass a criminal sentence. The sentences applicable are a fine, conditional and unconditional imprisonment, community service and juvenile punishment, which outlines community service and supervision. Finnish criminal policy has strongly emphasised the importance of not using unconditional imprisonment for offenders under the age of 18 (Nuorisorikostoimikunnan mietintö 2003).

Mediation is, at the moment, an alternative to court proceedings for young people who offend (Marttunen 2004; Mielityinen 1999). The mediation programmes are managed by the municipal social welfare offices. The initiative for submitting cases to mediation comes from the police or from the prosecutor. The consent of all parties is required before going to reconciliation.

When analysing the present system of young offenders, the Commission for Youth Crime has suggested that the range of sentences for young offenders should be expanded in Finland. Juvenile punishment, including several social and rehabilitative goals, is proposed to cover all offenders under the age of 21 (Nuorisorikostoimikunnan mietintö 2003). The experiences resulting from a pilot period between 1997 and 2004 were sufficiently positive to suggest that juvenile punishment (community service and supervision) should be introduced across the country as an option in 2005. The evaluation research of that period informs us that during a 12-month follow-up period, at least 57 per cent of those sentenced to juvenile punishment committed a new offence for which they received at least a conditional prison sentence. Marttunen and Takala (2002) argue that the rate of recidivism does not mean that juvenile punishment has failed but that the sanction has been used for the most difficult group of offenders.

A principle is being expressed here: juvenile punishment can be seen as a compromise between the neoclassicist and the social and rehabilitative perspective. Juvenile punishment incorporates punishment in the sense that the sanction involves a censure for the offence. Having the offenders realise the impact of their offences, getting them to understand why that act is wrong and what impact it has on other people – for example, the victim – are significant objectives of juvenile punishment (Marttunen and Takala 2002). In the future, the Commission for Youth Crime suggests that juvenile punishment should also include the option of having treatment for substance abuse or psychiatric problems, which has not been possible so far. Therein lies one of the main messages of the present proposal: the justice system for juveniles should include more social and treatment approaches than it has done so far.

The changing nature of youth crime

The series of surveys of Finnish ninth grade (15–16-year-old) pupils and their self-reported crimes during the years 1995, 1996 and 1998 suggest that juvenile delinquency has become more polarised over recent years in Finland. The number of youths who refrain completely from law-breaking activities seems to be increasing, and the attitude of adolescents towards delinquent behaviour has become less tolerant. The number of those young people who did not report any offence during the year of inquiry increased from 25 per cent to nearly 30 per cent of all respondents (in 1995 and in 1998) (Kivivuori 1999). These results regarding the division of crime activity support the thesis that a stratification process in childhood and youth is producing a polarisation in well-being of those who are worst and best off (Kivivuori 2002).

The numbers of juveniles suspected of crimes against the Penal Code have been relatively stable in the last two decades, according to the National Research Institute for Legal Policy (Rikollisuustilanne 2002, 2003). Although most crimes are committed by adults, the years of youth are nevertheless marked by intense criminal activity (Marttunen and Kivivuori 2003, p.144). Of all persons suspected of crimes, the proportion of young persons has slowly decreased, being 9.5 per cent in 2002. The most typical juvenile offences are status offences related to alcohol possession and identity documents, as well as car thefts, damage to property, robberies, thefts and assaults. There is, however, a slight growth in violent crimes committed by young people. Nevertheless, the figures for violent crimes are still so low that, for example, the World Health Organization (WHO) does not count the figures at all in its statistics (Krug et al. 2002).

In May 2004, there were 96 young people under the age of 21 serving their sentence in Finnish prisons. This was 3 per cent of the total prison population (3107) (Muiluvuori 2004). The number of young people under the age of 18 serving a sentence in prison was three in 2003; these young persons were placed in prison units meant for young offenders, with separate provision for male and female offenders.

In terms of international comparisons, these figures are low. According to Muncie (2004), in 1996 3.6 per cent of the prison population was under the age of 21 in Finland. The same figure was 18.8 per cent for Scotland and 17.8 per cent for England.

Between the justice system and child protection: dimensions, experiences and implications for the future

Challenging professionalism and lay expertise

In child protection, social workers have traditionally been the key professional group planning, implementing and making decisions about child protection measures. Social workers have functioned within the limits of local administration and politics as well as civil society (Lehtinen 2001). They often collaborate with other professions working with families and children, such as family workers, teachers, psychologists and psychiatrists, and not forgetting the police. The ultimate legitimisation and framework for child protection has always been presented by legislation; in order to exist, child protection has to follow the principles of the Child Welfare Act and other pieces of legislation related to it. However, some recent tendencies suggest that a legalisation process of a new sort is taking place. This means that, on the one hand, the accuracy and documentation of the formal process of decision-making are being given more attention and, on the other, legal actors and institutions have started to play an important role during the different stages of child protection clienthood, using argumentative power to influence specific actions by professionals and families instead of only setting the general framework (Sinko 2004).

This development could be seen in the context of attempts to safeguard human rights in the complicated and conflict-sensitive situations of child protection (Sinko 2004). However, the impact of the new kind of legalism can also be found in the attempts to make the professional and bureaucratic elements of child protection stronger in order to meet the criteria set by the juridical parties. That tendency is in tension with the role of civil society and its lay and political representatives in the municipal social welfare boards, which traditionally have been there to guide, regulate and control (local) child protection and the position of social workers. Most interestingly, the tendency towards legalisation is strong at a time when professional methods such as the use of Family Group Conferences have become highly valued, with an emphasis on diversion from formal decision-making. In such approaches, the authority of professional expertise is challenged by the expertise of those who, as members of the family and local community, would like to become involved in solving a problem a child/family has met.

Meanwhile, the justice system dealing with juvenile crimes has introduced mediation, relying strongly on the willingness of civil society to become involved in negotiating and solving the conflict (crime) between the young offender and the victim. Juvenile punishment also requires other parties, such as employers, to offer young offenders a place to work in order to complete their community service; lay people may also be the supervisors for conditional imprisonment or juvenile punishment. In other words, both the involvement and co-operation of civil society are necessary in order to carry out the tasks of sentencing for young people.

The tendencies are, as it turns out, rather contradictory: although there is, on the one hand, a strong emphasis on lay expertise and the involvement of civil society, on the other, the professional and bureaucratic elements are particularly emphasised in formal child protection decision-making and especially in the frame of legal system and expertise. The different discourses of expertise are common in any area of human services, and indeed are often seen as characteristic of the postmodern era, where uncertainty and ambiguity as elements of expertise exist side by side with demands for authoritative expertise (Parton and O’Byrne 2000). In the context of children and young people in trouble, this self-evidently means extra expectations for the children, young people and their families to work out and constantly negotiate how to act in different contexts with different expertise discourses.

Dialogue and psychosocial programmes vs institutional placements

In the early days of specialised interventions in the lives of children and young people in trouble, institutional care was one of the major instruments. In Finland, the first reformatory schools were established at the end of the nineteenth century, providing care and upbringing in isolated conditions for ‘delinquent’ children and young people (Harrikari 2004b, p.21). They still exist, but their number and the numbers of young residents they work with has decreased enormously: at the moment, there are only six institutions of this kind and they take about 200 young persons a year compared with the considerably higher figures of the 1980s and 1990s.

The weakening role of the reformatory schools indicates a major shift in understanding public care and in the expectations placed upon it: residential care has largely been replaced by other forms of support provision, upbringing and control. A very strong example of such ideology is the most recent report on youth justice (Nuorisorikotoiimikunnan mietintö 2003): youth sentencing should take place as much as possible in the everyday environment of the offender and imprisonment should be used only when absolutely necessary. Institutional care, if used, should be integrated into society as much as possible. Child protection practices tend to emphasise the importance of ‘open care measures’ while the justice system stresses different forms of community sentencing. The principles of social belonging and dialogue have replaced the idea of sending young persons to the isolation of institutional space, except for a small minority.

There are different reasons for such policy changes and they are not separate from what has taken place in social welfare and health care generally. In criminal justice, the importance of dialogue has increased especially as a part of mediation. The mediation movement has criticised the criminal justice system for its ‘facelessness’ and inadequacy in dealing with emotions (Takala 1998, p.136). Therefore the face-to-face contact between the offender and the victim is important to facilitate the resolution of the human reactions of different types, including moral sense and emotions. In social work, interaction between people, including the social worker and his/her client, has traditionally been seen as one of the core elements of practice, as that is the arena for expressing and (re)formulating needs and directions for change.

It seems that the power of dialogue is given a special status in juvenile justice. The report of the Commission of Juvenile Crime (Nuorisorikostoimikunnan mietintö 2003) suggests that young people, when arrested, should be taken to a special reprimand session to make sure that the wrongness of committing crimes is known to the offender. The expectations are thus that this dialogue would change the offender’s understanding of his/her behaviour. With regard to the impact of mediation, the dialogue in the institutional context of mediation seems to influence the offenders. In Eskelinen’s study (2005, p.161) of mediation for persons under 15 years of age, the coming face to face of the victim and the offender was found to be a very important part of the mediation process. The experience had had positive effects on how they could attend their problems through interaction. However, the research done in this field does not allow us to make any statements about the influence of dialogue in other professional or lay settings.

Promoting change

In Finland, the idea of punishment is not uppermost in the case of young offending. One of the key principles of the Finnish system is the strong belief that change can be promoted even in cases when children or young people harm themselves or their environment by their behaviour. Such individuals are seen to be in need of support, control, education and resocialisation.

In many policy documents concerning both social welfare (Heikkilä, Kaakinen and Korpelainen 2003) and youth justice (Nuorisorikostoimikunnan mietintö 2003) early intervention is prioritised as being the essential tool for dealing with childhood and youth problems. The very idea of early intervention is not new. Preventative issues have long belonged to the agenda of child welfare and work with young offenders (Laitinen and Nyholm 1995). However, recent policy documents make prevention central. Crime prevention has been rooted in the practices of criminal policy, while early childhood education and care, including day care, is partly legitimated as a practice preventing the deterioration of the psychosocial problems of children and their families. In its most fundamental meaning, early intervention is meant for everyone – every child should be entitled to a happy and safe childhood. Therefore, the general functioning of universalist family policy, through financial benefits and other support, is important. However, a growing number of arguments emphasise the importance of practices that focus only on high-risk childhoods in order to avoid the possible marginalisation process.

Early intervention policies have increased co-operation between different agencies and professionals. Networking and co-operation are highly valued and practised in social welfare in general. The police, day care professionals, teachers, youth workers, child and youth psychiatrists, and not forgetting social workers in different organisations, constitute the key group. A great challenge is to expand the approach in such a way that other actors, notably children and young people, could be included as equal partners, as well to define what kind of changes are needed. As part of child policy, children and young people have been involved as active subjects in their living or school environments, but not so commonly when planning crime prevention or child protection.

In the area of youth offending, the systems of child protection and justice have existed side by side. The future might mean a stronger interdependency between these two systems due to the suggested increase of social and rehabilitative elements of youth sentencing. We may see some risks in this development. First, is the possible growth of professional power previously mentioned. Second, the key tasks of each system might become blurred: for example, the justice system will include care and support functions as part of youth sentencing and at the same time child protection will function in order to prevent crimes. Third, and most importantly, although the expanding networks of professionals, organisations, approaches and programmes may offer an opportunity for the children and young people to find solutions to their problems, on the other hand the variety of networks might introduce a new type of managerialism, regulated more by the interests of the system than by the individual children and young people.


The welfare of children and young people has been high on the Finnish social policy agenda for more than a decade. The position of children and young people in trouble should therefore be looked upon from the point of view of the functioning of the welfare state which, in a very contradictory way, may exclude the most vulnerable children and young people with their special needs (Hearn et al. 2004; Pösö 2001). In that respect, the early 2000s form a distinctive period of social debate as so many social concerns as well as policy documents have been targeted at those vulnerable children and young people.

The present statements, analysis and proposals for change are rich in their ambition to promote the welfare of children and young people. Although child protection issues are to some extent separate from justice issues, there are several interconnections, especially in terms of young people committing crimes. Even though a proposal for thorough changes in juvenile justice has been made, youth criminality is not currently prominent among the concerns articulated in Finnish society. This could be explained by the fact that in Finland serious youth crime is not quantitatively an important issue, compared to, for example, the UK, and also by the strong holistic and psychosocial discourses among professionals who work with children and young people.

However, at this very moment, the strong stratification process among children and young people may fundamentally challenge the traditional approaches to social problems in Finnish society. Even more, professional practice with children and young people in trouble is expected to go through major changes. There are some contradictory tendencies – for instance, the emphasis on both the importance of the role of formal institutions and the need to involve members of civil society in decision-making and the different programmes for looking after young people and their troubles. At worst, the practices are asked to solve problems that cannot be resolved by individually based programmes. There is, nevertheless, the opportunity to move towards such a practice, which is sensitive enough to the needs of children and young people in trouble as well as to the special social and cultural conditions in which those troubles are created and dealt with.


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