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Following the Second World War, powerful support developed in Sweden for the idea of constructing a welfare society. The causes of crime were viewed as lying in various welfare deficiencies and the work to combat crime became focused on correcting these deficiencies (at both the structural and individual levels). The treatment ideology was well suited to the ideological perspective of this political movement. The treatment perspective that dominated Sweden during the 1960s and 1970s has therefore had a major influence on the Swedish justice system, particularly in relation to young offenders. The system of responses to youth offending that developed against this background was primarily comprised of a range of treatment measures. The social services were given a central role in this system, with the role of the criminal justice system being primarily one of supporting the social services in their work with young offenders.

Criticism focused on the treatment ideology during the 1980s led to a shift in the criminal justice system towards a neoclassicist approach. The focus shifted away from prevention and towards the just desserts perspective. The effects of these changes were considerably less pronounced for young offenders than they were for adult offenders. The development involved the courts being given more influence over the sanctions imposed on young offenders, primarily at the expense of prosecutors, but also to some extent the social services. It became more common for social services measures to be implemented at the instruction of or following the approval of the courts.

The sanctions imposed by the courts in a majority of cases still involve the provision of treatment measures, often within the social services system or similar institutions. The municipal social services also administer sanctions such as mediation and youth service. The Swedish system of responses to young offenders remains relatively mild by comparison with many other countries; the use of punitive measures and custodial sentences remains limited.

This system has been in place without having undergone any dramatic changes during the post-war period that witnessed powerful increases in levels of youth crime as well as more recent periods during which levels of youth crime have been on the decline. The issue of how youth crime trends are linked to changes in the criminal justice system is a complex one. It is difficult to identify direct effects of changes in the justice system on crime levels, either in Sweden or other countries. We cannot, however, exclude the possibility that the political intentions that have led to the reforms described earlier may to some extent be a result of the same changes in the structures of social control that have also produced the noted decline in levels of youth crime.

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