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THE INTRODUCTION OF SOCIAL WELFARE INTERVENTIONS AND THE BELGIAN STATE REFORM (1970S-1980S)

Besides the augmentation of the age of criminal responsibility, the 1965 Youth Protection Act also introduced the “voluntary” social welfare interventions. Youngsters (and their families) in danger or in need could call upon new local social welfare boards (jeugdbeschermingscomites) for social intervention and assistance. This voluntary welfare protection was directly related to the coercive judicial social welfare protection, and families who were unwilling to co-operate “freely” could be forced to do so by the Juvenile Court. Therefore this extension of the juvenile justice system can be (and was) characterised as an extension (and thus net-widening) of the police des familles or social control of juveniles and their families (Donzelot 1977; Van de Kerchove 1976).

However, soon after the 1965 Act an intense process of federalisation (19701988) transformed Belgium into a federal state consisting of three communities—a French, a Dutch and a German community. This process had important consequences for the reorganisation of competencies concerning the juvenile justice system. The communities became almost exclusively competent concerning legislation and interventions towards “children in danger” (both the “voluntary”, social welfare interventions and the judicial coercive interventions). Moreover, and even though the (definition of) judicial responses to “youth delinquency” remained a federal matter, the execution of these welfare measures ordered by the Youth Court became a competence of the communities. This implies, for example, that the federal state is competent to decide whether or not a youngster can be placed in a closed institution and for what time, but the communities are solely competent to create and organise these institutions. However, in 2002, the federal authorities (and not the authorities of the communities as one might have supposed) created and organised a new detention institution (youth prison) for boys from 14 years on. In case there was no place available in the community institutions, boys could be sent to this federal institution (see also further section “Custodial rules for juveniles”).

It is clear that this complex division of competences—a real imbroglio— resulted de facto in a reform (restructuring) of the intervention possibilities of the Belgian juvenile justice system. On the federal level, the juvenile justice system can prosecute juveniles for “facts described as a penal offence”. On the community level, the same juvenile justice system can prosecute juveniles who are considered to be in danger because of their own behaviour or of their problematic educational and/or family context (verontrustende situatie, enfant en danger) and who do not “freely” co-operate with the social, welfare institutions of the different communities. This category of problematic, non-delinquent youngsters can include youngsters with a wide range of problems, from being a victim of abuse to being the author of bad behaviour. Recently, due to the sixth State Reform of 2014-2015, it was decided that also the definition of judicial reactions towards young delinquents will become a community competence and that the communities hence have the competence to work out new legislation. Meanwhile the federal (Belgian) Youth Protection Act of 2006 remains in place.

 
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