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Delinquency Among Minority Youth:
Can They Be Better Rehabilitated?

Juvenile delinquency is often considered to be a predictor of the general crime level of a society. Because the adolescent years are formative, and determine the criminal involvement of young people as they develop into adults, it is important to address juvenile delinquency through effective rehabilitative approaches. Juvenile crime statistics in the Netherlands show an overrepresentation of ethnic minority groups. These youngsters generally start their "criminal career" earlier than Dutch youngsters, and are also more frequently engaged in criminal activities. A forthcoming study by Arjan Blokland, Senior Researcher at the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement, demonstrates that non-Dutch minority groups are overrepresented among Dutch citizens born in 1984. This overrepresentation is particularly strong amongst Moroccan adolescents: 54% of Moroccan youngsters born in 1984 have been in contact with the police before turning 22 years of age. In addition, this study indicates that different ethnic groups tend to engage in different types of criminal activities. Professor Blokland notes that, for example, Dutch young men are predominantly registered for the destruction of public property, while Moroccan youngsters are more often registered for vandalizing private property and their Turkish counterparts mostly registered for violent offenses.

The divergent levels of participation in crime and different criminal activities engaged in by the various groups suggest that there are specific contextual factors that correlate with the special nature of minorities’ involvement in crime. This article argues that these specific factors relate to particular needs of youngsters from ethnic minority backgrounds, and that these needs should be taken into account by the juvenile justice system when constructing a rehabilitative approach. The current system, however, fails to do so. Its prevalent discourse emphasizes an individually-based, non-discriminatory approach to delinquent youngsters, intentionally downplaying issues of ethnic identity. This current approach stems from dissatisfaction with older discourses that profiled delinquent youngsters on the basis of their ethnicity. While the new discourse may reduce the risk of stigmatizing minority groups, it simultaneously neglects the realities of a Dutch multicultural society. By focusing on the particular issues that are associated with specific minority groups, rehabilitative strategies for criminal youth in the Netherlands could become more efficient and beneficial.

The Dutch approach to crime and rehabilitation of ethnic minorities should be perceived in terms of the broader integration debate that has taken place in the Netherlands over the past three decades. This debate has changed considerably since the 1980s. At that time, integration was seen as the self-organization of different religious, ethnic and cultural communities. In the minds of most Dutch people, this vision fit perfectly with the Dutch tradition of pilarization, whereby each sector of society built its own social, political, and cultural institutions. In the case of immigrant groups, this tradition included schools and media outlets that conducted business in the native language of the immigrant community. In the 1990s, this paradigm shifted. Instead of sectarianism, integration was now measured by participation in shared social institutions. The older approach was seen as isolating immigrant groups and perpetuating their disadvantaged position in the educational system and labor market. A strong emphasis was therefore placed on reducing unemployment levels and increasing labor market participation.

In the 2000s, things changed once again. The rise of anti-immigration rhetoric in Dutch politics, and especially the immense popularity of Pim Fortuyn as well as the murder of film director Theo Van Gogh by a fundamentalist Muslim, resulted in a focus on public safety and crime prevention among minority groups. Whereas during the previous decade the state had invested a great dea of effort in improving immigrants' living conditions as a way to facilitate integration, now the expectations shifted from the state to the immigrants themselves, with the result that integration began to be conceived as "active citizenship." This included an emphasis on shared norms, compliance with the rule of law, and knowledge of Dutch language. This new approach, in turn, determined the new immigration policies in the Netherlands. Stricter criteria relating to family, labor and asylum were implemented; a Dutch language test for new immigrants was administered; and stronger measures to prevent illegal immigration and illegal residency were put in place.

During each period, the dominant position on integration also determined the state’s juvenile crime control and rehabilitation approaches. In the 1980s, the Netherlands had separate rehabilitation and detention facilities for different minority groups. Joan Strater, an intercultural child psychologist at the Bascule, an academic center for youth psychiatry, mentions as an example a special detention center for Surinamese girls that operated during the 1980s. In the 1990s, this approach was eliminated based on the belief that everybody should integrate into a single society and be treated equally, and therefore all youth delinquents were placed in the same facilities. During that period, the government introduced programs that emphasized integration in the areas of education and labor market. Such programs included Communities that Care, Neighborhood Justice Centers, social skills programs for groups at risk, parenting support, and HALT, which offered community service hours as an alternative to detention. This new approach was best manifested in the Labor Party’s 2002 program, Persistent and Effective, which focused heavily on family and parenting programs, and on developing social skills amongst minority youth. Then, the successive center-right government implemented its own crime prevention plan, called "Jeugd Terecht". This initiative, driven mostly by public safety concerns, reduced the emphasis on welfare needs and integration of minority groups while enhancing the role of police and punitive detention as a way to fight crime.

Today the rehabilitation approach in the Netherlands has shifted once more. Practitioners no longer focus on ethnicity as a factor when constructing rehabilitation strategies; rather, they focus on individuals and the problems that are unique to each person. As a strategy to prevent recividism among youngsters, employees of the correctional system work on each youth’s personal development and overall well-being. Each youth entering the rehabilitation system is screened and his or her individual rehabilitative needs identified; based on these needs, a personalized rehabilitative track is laid out consisting of specialized attention during group therapy hours. Individuals who were convicted of violent offenses, for example, receive anger management instruction, while individuals who struggle with drug addiction receive treatment specific to that problem.

There are some notable benefits to this new rehabilitative approach. Rather than focusing on characteristics ascribed to particular groups – characteristics that may or may not actually apply to a particular individual belonging to that group – the new approach aims to tailor a strategy to the needs of a yongster undergoing rehabilitation. The new system also places greater emphasis on social integration and the equality of all Dutch people. Whereas the old rehabilitative approach divided youths based on their ethnic background to create ethnically exclusive groups, the new approach forgoes such divisions. Yet, it is precisely this sort of universal approach that carries the risk of treating everyone as if they were part of a cohesive group, and overlooking individual issues.

While this universal approach is applied to all youngsters in the system, juvenile justice institutions do utilize certain characterization mechanisms to identify groups with specific needs. Among these are, for example, youngsters who are mentally challenged (IQ score between 55 and 80) and those who experience severe sexual-related problems. The official policy states that the specific needs of such groups should be addressed by means of targeted treatments that employ specialized knowledge, in order to foster the successful reentry of these youngsters into society.

In theory, each individual’s treatment is decided on a case-by-case basis. However, the categories just mentioned reflect certain prioritized concerns of policymakers in the treatment of juvenile delinquents. Yet, ethnic or cultural background does not seem to be among these priorities. As Bob van der Spek, group leader at Doggershoek in Den Helder, a juvenile detention centre, commented, "Some behavioral patterns are more prevalent amongst certain minority groups, but this is not taken as a basis for a specified approach for specific target groups." This is surprising, considering that minority groups in the Netherlands are quite overrepresented in statistics on juvenile delinquency. In order to better target the social problems indicated by these statistics, rehabilitative strategies could benefit from identifying issues endemic to certain minority groups. In particular, a deepened understanding of the specific cultural context underlying juvenile delinquency for various ethnic groups will enable rehabilitative programs and strategies to be better-tailored to these different groups’ needs. This will ultimately increase time and cost-efficiency, and enhance the social benefit of the programs.

In order to understand the specific needs that different ethnic groups might display in the process of rehabilitating into society, we need to look more closely at the particular characteristics of each group, which in turn reflect the group’s unique history in the country. We will focus on those ethnic groups that are disproportionally represented in criminal statistics in the Netherlands: namely, Surinamese, Antilleans, Turks and Moroccans.

The Surinamese arrived in great numbers in the 1970s, and today mostly live in the southeast section of Amsterdam. While initially they endured greater discrimination than any other group, now, having been here the longest, they have assimilated relatively well into the Dutch society. Some cultural characteristics of the Surinamese have their origins in the days of slavery, when the men were taken away to work while the women were encouraged to make babies to produce more slaves. According to Strater, the legacy of slavery has affected modern Surinamese families, which are often single-parent households led by strong women. In this context, where strong women "rule over" their sons, young men go into the streets and group into street gangs in search of their "male identity." Strater characterizes Surinamese families as often having "loose" family relations, meaning loose ties between family members and limited adult supervision of children. She also mentioned that as an outsider, she often encounters a friendly yet superficial attitude from Antillean and Surinamese families. They are willing to cooperate, yet long-lasting and effective ties with them are difficult to establish.

Migrants from the Dutch Antilles arrived later than the Surinamese, around the second half of the 1980s when poverty in the Antilles was increasing. They are now mostly concentrated in Rotterdam. Antillean youth – who often have low levels of education, an insufficient command of the Dutch language, and face high unemployment – have generally experienced problems integrating into the Dutch society. Strater argues that in comparison to Suriname youngsters, the challenges faced by Antillean youths more often translate into criminal behaviour. Despite the different levels of participation in crime, scholars like Blokland argue that the underlying causes of criminal behaviour amongst Antillean and Surinamese youth have a similar basis. As with the Surinamese youngsters, these budding criminals are being culturally reproduced by the great number of single-parent households and high proportion of teenage mothers within the Antillean community. Emphasis here is placed on the absence of a father figure in the family, which has several implications. First, it negatively affects the level of supervision over children’s behavior. Second, in the absence of a breadwinner, the family’s socioeconomic position is often marginalized. As a consequence, Antillean girls and single-mothers often find themselves relying on men who engage in criminal activities, yet can provide a potential source of income for them and their future families. The expected exposure to antisocial peers, and consequently the likelihood of their own delinquent behavior, is therefore higher for Antillean girls. Following this analysis, the single-parent family structure that characterizes Antillean families can be identified as a specific factor relating ethnicity and future criminality; this suggests the need for a personalized approach for Antillean youth that targets famiy relations.

The Turks arrived in the 1960s and 1970s, around the same time as the Moroccans. Although they are somewhat represented in criminal statistics, the figures often refer to high-profile criminal activities. Strater argues that Turks do not stand out amidst the adolescent crime data, and that they are not a real concern for the juvenile delinquency system. This could be related, she says, to the fact that Turkish youngsters grow up in very strong community networks in which even low-grade criminal participation is considered a "loss of face," even more so than in the Moroccan community. While less serious crimes are not as high as for some of the other minority groups, studies have indicated that when Turkish youngsters do engage in criminal activities, this is often related to a deficit in their supportive network. Some parents do not support them as much as Dutch parents support their youngsters. A portion of Turkish youth spend more time on the streets, rather than at home in supportive environments. According to the social control theory whereby the strength of social bonds determines the likelihood of delinquent behavior, Turkish youths lacking this familial support are therefore more prone to committing crimes. This propensity, of course, can be addressed if their social bonds are strengthened.

Another group that stands out in crime statistics is the Moroccans. As with the other groups, here there is a reason to believe that historical, social and cultural circumstances contribute to adolescents’ criminal involvement. In the 1970s, Moroccans arrived primarily from the Berber region as guest workers. In their homeland, they had been marginalized under French, and later Arab rule. The Dutch recruited them when cheap labor was hard to find in Europe. Initially, the Berber Moroccans were not invited to stay; they themselves for a long time thought they would eventually return to Morocco. This had an important impact upon their relatively difficult integration into Dutch society. They did not emphasize learning Dutch and did not invest in creating local networks. However, as they accumulated wealth over time, many of them wanted to stay in the Netherlands and reunite with their spouses and children. These Moroccan children, most of whom were born in Morocco and brought to the Netherlands at a young age, experienced an extremely pronounced generational gap from their parents in terms of knowledge, language, and culture. They watched their parents break under the burden of hard labor. They spent very little time with their fathers, who were working long hours in Dutch factories and industry, and their family relationships suffered due to the initial years of complete geographical separation. In search of someone who would understand them, Moroccan youngsters have found negative role models and criminal opportunities on the streets. Thus, providing them with positive male role models is an essential part of their treatment.

Because of their traditional status as a marginalized group in Morocco, Strater notes, Berbers have developed a general mistrust of government and state authority. This makes it difficult for the police and welfare services to engage in dialogue with them. On top of this initial suspicion, they also worry about discrimination by the outside world, fearing that they will be treated differently in courts, by parole officers and by psychologists in school, when applying for jobs, and even on the bus. As Strater observes, this makes it much harder to establish relationships of trust and cooperation with Moroccan families when working on treatment plans for youngsters. In light of this fact, correctional workers should take care to establish strong relationships with Moroccan youth and their families. Furthermore, it is important that social workers, parole officers, and psychologists working with these families be aware of the historical and cultural background that contributes to their suspicion of outsiders.

Said Bensellam, a community worker who has worked extensively with Moroccan youth, believes that the close structure of Moroccan families plays an important role in the level of criminal involvement. He says that by removing a youngster from his or her family for a prolonged period, the state actually undermines that child’s rehabilitative capacity. Moroccan families are very close, and respect and trust within the family is crucial. When these youths are incarcerated, their relationship with their parents is harmed, and they have fewer opportunities to regain trust and respect within the family. For this reason, a much greater emphasis should be placed on education at detention centers as a means for Moroccan adolescents to prove themselves worthy once again in the eyes of their parents. Education empowers the individual, giving him or her the tools to come back into society and engage in productive activity that is not criminal. But it also allows him or her to reintegrate into the family, which often views criminality as highly disgraceful and shameful.

Another problem associated with Moroccan youth is the growing trend toward religious radicalization. Traditionally, Berber Moroccans have not been very religious, considering Islam a culture more than a religion. Yet Moroccan teenagers are becoming increasingly radicalized, and identifying themselves with religious Islam. Strater believes this is directly linked to the fact that mainstream Dutch society forced them to the margins. By generally referring to Moroccans as "different," focusing on their distinct customs such as headscarves, mosques and so on, native Dutch have proven Moroccans correct in their claims of discrimination and marginalization. This has led to new forms of self-assertion and affirmation of identity, some of which involve extreme religiosity. This growing risk requires a policy response that is well-tailored to this specific ethnic group. This would involve more effective education of both Moroccan and Dutch people in the Netherlands, in order that the Dutch not further perpetuate Moroccan criminal involvement by way of discrimination, and that the Moroccans develop alternative ways to feel secure in their identity and cope with any discrimination that they do experience.

Individualized treatment in integrated facilities represents progress in the right direction, reducing the potential for stigmatization of minority groups and preventing the automatic labeling of individuals due to ethnic background. Nevertheless, ignoring cultural differences and needs might retard the rehabilitation process. Excessive self-consciousness about stigmatizing certain groups frequently leads to ignorance about their specific needs and the conditions they face in society; ignoring these factors neglects an important opportunity to address some of the root causes of distress and crime amongst minors. Moreover, there is a need for cultural awareness among correctional staff and state officials involved in detention and rehabilitation processes. A lack of understanding regarding the history and culture of various ethnic communities leads to even worse forms of discrimination. By ignoring the problem, the system ends up enabling more populist and misinformed expressions of stigmatization to prevail among therapists, parole officers and juvenile judges.

Improvement can come on two fronts. First, research on this topic could be expanded. Scholars Uit Beijerse and Van Swaaningen point out that there is still very little research done on the causes of minority groups’ disproportionate representation in crime statistics. Second, this data should be translated into workable solutions to combat these crime-related factors. More than anything else, this is a question of education, training and awareness. Instead of avoiding references to specific ethnic backgrounds, training programs should educate employees on the historical and social contexts that can explain some of the problems faced by Dutch minority youth. If this is done correctly, such knowledge can only help, not harm, attempts at enhancing the rehabilitation and reintegration of delinquent minority youth.



M. Jung, Leiden. Delinquency and Ethnicity: An Investigation on Social Factors Relating to Delinquency Among Moroccan, Turkish, Surinamese and Dutch Boys. Deventer, Netherlands: Kluwer Law and Taxation Publishers, 1990.


Blokland, Arjan, Grimbergen, Kim, Bernasco, Wim, and Nieuwbeerta, Paul. "Criminele Carrieres van Autochtone en Allochtone Jongeren uit het Geboortecohort 1984." Criminaliteit en Etniciteit (2010 forthcoming) 122–152.

Engbersen, Godfried, van der Leun, Joanne, and de Boom, Jan. "The Fragmentation of Migration and Crime in The Netherlands." Crime and Justice (2007) 389–452.

Junger-Tas, Josine. "Ethnic Minorities and Criminal Justice in The Netherlands." Crime and Justice (1997) 257–310.

Marshall, Ineke Haen and Marshall, Chris E. "Immigration, Crime and Prison Commitments in The Netherlands: A Time Series Analysis (1952–1988)." Criminal Justice Policy Review (1997) 25– 55.

Uit Beijerse, Jolande, and Van Swaaningen, Rene. "The Netherlands: Penal Welfarism and Risk Management." In Muncie, John and Goldson, Barry, eds. Comparative Youth Justice. London: Sage Publications, 2006.


Bensellam, Saïd. Community Worker, Bos & Lommer. Amsterdam, Netherlands. June 25, 2010.

Linthorst, Marcel. Strategic Advisor, Youth and Education Department, City of Amsterdam. Amsterdam, Netherlands. June 22, 2010.

Strater, Joan. Child Psychologist, Bascule. Amsterdam, Netherlands. June 23, 2010.

Van der Spek, Bob. Group Leader, Doggershoek in Den Helder. Amsterdam, Netherlands. June 25, 2010.

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Netherlands Netherlands 2010


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