How Croatia’s ‘Off-Ramps’ Keep Young Adults Out of Prison

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Dubrovnik, Croatia. Photo by Víctor González via Flickr

For a nation that is struggling economically, Croatia has still managed to fund and create a decent continuum of options for its juveniles and youth, including emerging adults up to age 21, perhaps because it spends so little on incarceration.

As part of our three-nation study tour of European approaches to working with young, court-involved adults, I traveled with Lael Chester, director of Columbia University’s Emerging Adult Project at the Justice Lab, from the Netherlands to Zagreb, Croatia where we had the opportunity to meet with many of the key stakeholders involved in the juvenile and young adult systems there.

Once again, people were enormously generous with their time and, as in the Netherlands, their coffee, tea and pastries too.

We visited the Dugave Center, a seemingly decent and caring government-run program in Zagreb that had in it several elements of a continuum of care either in its headquarters or nearby, ranging from before- or after-school day treatment, counseling and small-scale group care to tutoring and educational programming.

That said, they still seem to be working out issues that many Americans are grappling with as they think through the possibility of allowing youth older than 18 to be tried as juveniles.

Service providers and some legal professionals were not comfortable including youth older than 18 in group or residential settings with youth under 18. So, while it was technically possible for youth over 18 to be ordered to the Dugave Center, staff there indicated it rarely happens.

While program staff members were very supportive of including youth over age 18 in juvenile law, they did not think they should be mixed in either residential or non-residential group programming with younger individuals. Other programs existed in Croatia which did mix juveniles with young adults, but we were unable to visit them because of time constraints.

Map of Croatia by Captain Blood via Wikipedia

Zagreb is by far the largest city in Croatia, with a population of around 790,000 residents (more in the metro area) in a nation of 4.2 million. By comparison, the next largest city, Split, has 180,000 residents.

Since its inception in 1918, juvenile law in Croatia has focused on what in Europe are dubbed “educational measures,” which roughly translates into what Americans would call a rehabilitative mission.

In 1959, special provisions were included in Croatian law for emerging adults ages 18 to 21, making additional rehabilitative measures available and reducing sentence lengths for them (while otherwise trying, sentencing and incarcerating them as adults).

During the Croatian war for independence from 1991 to 1995, there was an increase in juvenile crime. But that didn’t result in tougher juvenile crime measures. Quite the contrary: In 1993, a national commission looked into other countries’ juvenile justice approaches (including Germany’s) and recommended reforms to Croatia’s juvenile law.

This resulted in the passage of the Croatian Juvenile Courts Act (JCA) in 1997.

Among other things, the JCA prohibits trying youth under age 18 in adult court and allows youth up to age 21 to be sentenced as juveniles; increases and codifies diversion (which now happens in slightly more than half of all indicted cases); and creates a range of juvenile “educational” measures. Youth are rarely sanctioned with confinement in a youth prison as the main goal of the JCA is youth rehabilitation.

The JCA, of which a dated English-language version is available on line, nicely lays out the Croatian system in one, easy-to-understand code. While it is a code unique to this small Balkan nation’s circumstances, it’s a must-read for any policy wonks considering revising their approach to justice for emerging adults (or juveniles, for that matter).

The JCA is based on Croatian stakeholders’ interpretation of the research that indicates that youth and emerging adults are developmentally and neurologically different than more mature adults. It lays out a series of “off ramps”, first to prosecution through diversion, followed by alternatives to confinement through educational measures like counseling, community service, juvenile probation, special “orders” (conditions), day treatment, placement in open community settings (like group homes), or short term confinement.

Under the JCA, imprisonment is used very rarely. Youth under age 14 cannot be prosecuted at all; youth under 16 cannot be sent to youth prisons; and those under age 18 cannot be tried as adults. University of Zagreb Professor Neven Ricijaš, PhD, estimates that there are only about 20-30 juveniles and young adults in youth prisons in all of Croatia.

Records of youth handled under juvenile law are always confidential in Croatia. Even adult records are more difficult to publicly access than in the U.S. Adults in Croatia often have opportunities to expunge their records after a time, even if they have been to prison.


Zagreb. Photo by Mario Fajt via Flickr

In general, criminal records for adults in the Netherlands, Croatia and Germany are far less publicly available than they are in the U.S.

In some ways, this strengthens the argument for treating young adults in America as juveniles. It would generally increase confidentiality protections if emerging adults were tried and sentenced under juvenile law. Because of the more open approach to adult criminal records in the U.S., if emerging adults were sentenced as juveniles, it would be an even greater shield from the harsh collateral consequences of U.S. adult court convictions than in Europe, where the consequences of an adult conviction are either less severe, the records less publicly available, or both.

As with Germany and the Netherlands, the Croatians attached a network of non-legal professionals—social pedagogues, social workers and psychologists—to their court systems to advise courts and prosecutors on developmental issues pertaining to juveniles and young adults. These non-legal professionals not only interview and provide recommendations to the courts/prosecutors, but they also stay with cases post-sentencing to check up on whether the court’s orders are being followed and to arrange for post-sentencing follow-up hearings, if necessary.

As with the Dutch, Croatian officials found this assessing, advising and follow-up function enormously helpful.

Like the Netherlands, we were fortunate to be able to speak with Professor Ricijaš, a judge (Lana Peto Kujundžić, PhD), a prosecutor (Mirta Kuharić), a social pedagogue (Matea Babić), and Zagreb’s probation director (Matea Srsen).

The people we spoke with were very supportive of having the option to sentence young adults under juvenile law, largely to be able to provide educational opportunities and mitigated sentencing to a population they still considered to be immature and capable of change.

We are very thankful for their generosity of time and expertise.

On to Berlin next, where we will take a similar tour of the German system with around 20 legislators, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement officials, juvenile justice officials, advocates, and service providers from Massachusetts—a state that this year has seen numerous legislative proposals to raise the age of its juvenile court to 21 or 19.

In a recently released 100-page justice reform bill, a House and Senate conference committee did not include a provision raising the court’s jurisdiction past 18, but proposed several provisions specific to emerging adults, including enhanced expungement opportunities for youth up to age 21 and a task force to study approaches to working with court-involved emerging adults.

Vincent Schiraldi

Vincent Schiraldi

Editor’s Note: See also Raising Age to 23: It Works for the Dutch

Vincent Schiraldi is senior research scientist at the Columbia University Justice Lab. He has served as New York City Probation Commissioner and director of juvenile corrections for Washington, DC. An earlier blog describing his European trip can be accessed here. He welcomes comments from readers.

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  1. Pingback: In Germany, It’s Hard to Find a Young Adult in Prison | Your high education waits for you!

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