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Thursday 30th of June 2016

Press Room

IJJO Interviews- Dr. Tapio Lappi-Seppälä. Director General of the National Research Institute of Legal Policy. Finland

Wednesday 21st of July 2010 | National, Finland

Mr. Lappi-Seppala, analyses the juvenile justice system in Finland as well as the situation of minors deprived of liberty in the same country. Throughout an exhausting presentation of the reform process for the minor criminal situation in Finland, Tapio gave a clear explanation of the evolution and development of the structure and context of the minor wellbeing, together with the progresses on the institutional level in Finland.


Tapio Lappi-Seppälä (PhD 1987, docent 1988) is the Director General of the National Research Institute of Legal Policy (since 1995). Alongside his current position he has been acting as a part-time professor in criminology and sociology of law at the University of Helsinki. His long career as a senior legislative adviser in criminal law in the Ministry of Justice, includes the membership of the Board in the Task Force for the Penal Law Reform in Finland (1989-1999), chairmanship of the working group preparing the general part of the criminal code (1993-1999), member of the committee preparing new prison law 1999-2001, and a vice chairman for the committee reforming the juvenile sanction system 2001-2003. He has taken actively part in international co-operation in criminal justice issues in the Scandinavian Research Council for Criminology, Council of Europe, in the International Penal and Penitentiary Foundation (Vice President since 2005), and in the European Society of Criminology (Member of the Board since 2008) . He has published several books, research reports and articles in the field criminal law, criminology and penal policy.

QUESTION.- Can you please present us a short introduction of your activity related to juvenile justice, as a professional involved in this field?

ANSWER. – My contacts with youth justice systems are based partly on my activities as a legislative counsellor in the ministry of justice in 1987-1995, partly on my position as the director of the National Research Institute of Legal Policy in Finland from 1995 to the present. During my years in the ministry I took part in all law drafting work within the field of criminal justice, youth justice included. This reform work is still going on. The research institute opens another perspective on the topics. Our institute has conducted in depth studies both in the field of juvenile crime and the functioning of the youth justice system in practice. Juvenile crime and youth justice form also at the moment an important part of our research program.

Q - Does a specific criminal legislation for minors exist in Finland?, How will you define the juvenile justice in Finland?

A. - Minors certainly are treated differently than adults. For the first, all juveniles below the age of 15 are exempted from criminal liability. They belong entirely to the child welfare system. Young offenders aged 15 to 17 are dealt with both by the child welfare system and the system of criminal justice. Young adults aged 18 to 20 are only dealt with by the criminal justice authorities. This means that Finland has a kind of double-track system. The youngest age group is under the child welfare, the middle age-group under two systems, while young adults are treated solely by the criminal justice authorities. Both systems need to be taken into account when discussing the Finnish youth justice system.

Q. - After the general child welfare reforms of the 1930s and 1940s in Finland, two systems for young offenders exist: the child welfare and the criminal justice system. What are the main differences between the two systems?

A. - The functioning of child welfare and criminal justice is based on fundamentally differing principles. The criterion for all child welfare interventions is the best interest of the child. All interventions are supportive and criminal acts have little or no formal role as a criterion or as a cause for these measures. The ‘criminal justice side’, on the other hand, makes much less difference between offenders of different ages. Strictly speaking, there is no separate juvenile criminal system in Finland in the sense in which this concept is usually understood in most other legal systems. Nevertheless, young offenders are in many respects treated differently to adults due to limiting rules for the full application of penal provisions. Offenders aged 15 to 17 benefit from a mitigated scale of punishment. Use of imprisonment in his age-group is restricted to exceptional cases and the applicable penal measures also include more rehabilitative and supportive element.

Q. - Can you describe how treatment and working method in child welfare change and evolve in Finland from the reform movement of the 1960s and the 1970s until today? What is actually the structure of child welfare and health care institutions?

A. - The child welfare systems in the Nordic countries evolved from the early 20th century ideas of compulsory education of misbehaving children, into a broader concept of social services in order to look after the well being of and the best interest of the child. Today child welfare is a part of a comprehensive public welfare policy. This policy covers social security, social services, health, education and training, housing, employment, etc., with the purpose of ensuring the most basic needs for all. From this perspective criminal offenses represent signs of the overall social situation of the child which needs to be addressed, not acts that need to be responded, as such.
The institutional structure of child welfare is fairly complex. It consists of several different types of institutions with different purposes and working principles. A clear majority of the children are placed in families and private family homes. For children in need of more intensive care and supervision there are also special children’s homes and juvenile homes. Most secured institutions, designed for older children and teenagers consist of the state reformatory schools.

Q. - What are the conditions of the detention facilities for juveniles in Finland? Can you please give us some data regarding the number of children in custody? What about juveniles in pre-trial detention? What about young offenders in mental health institutions?

A.- The concept “detention facility” or “closed institution” is alien to the Finnish child welfare system. Still, there may be restrictions for movement in various degrees (such as going to town), in order to guarantee participation in the daily teaching program. However, we need to remember that children are not placed in these institutions because of their offenses, but because their own development is jeopardized by environmental or by behavioural reasons. As regards to the conditions, reformatories are specialized into different areas and developed their own working profiles. There are 6 state reformatory schools with around 300 children altogether. The majority of children also in the state reformatories are there on a voluntary basis. Reformatories are first and foremost schools. The basic aim is to ensure and complete the curriculum of the ground-school and to pursue studies also after that.
Psychiatric treatment can be provided as a part of general health services or by small specific units, established for children and juveniles. Overwhelming majority of treatment periods are based on voluntary help, usually for depression. The number of young patients (age 13-17) treated without their consent and due to behavioural reasons varies around 30-60 at any given day. However, the overall number of juveniles receiving help with their mental problems is much larger (over 2000 cases / year).
If we look ate the criminal justice system, we would not find specific juvenile prisons in Finland. This is due to the small number of young prisoners. At any given day there are around 5-8 prisoners of the age of 15-17 in Finnish prisons. However, the prison law requires that young offenders are separated from adults (should this be in the best interest of the juvenile) and that special attention must be paid to the specific needs of juveniles. Young prisoners are placed in prisons specialized with programme-work that is suited to younger age groups. Juveniles in remand prisoners are be kept separated from prisoners serving the sentence, as well as form adults (unless required otherwise by the best interest of the prisoner).

Q. How have the educational and socio-reintegrational measures, provided for in Finnish juvenile law, been implemented? Can you please give us some information about the situation of young adults?

A. – As regards to children, I refer to general concept of child welfare. Social work with children means providing them safe, healthy and supporting living conditions and environment, rather than any specific modes of “treatment”. In acute crisis situations measures such as Multi-Systemic-Therapy and similar interventions are used, if needed (see below).
Young adults under the criminal justice system may attend to projects aiming to improve the social skills both during the prison term and after release. At the start of the sentence an individual plan for the future is drawn up in co-operation with the prisoner, the staff and the networkers in the prisoner’s home community. Work with inmates during the prison term focuses on holistic rehabilitation and the reinforcement of functional abilities. This work includes i.e. a structured rehabilitation programme for substance abuse, debt- and economic counselling, education and work activities, family work and work with volunteer supporters, courses on employment, creative activities and physical education as well as group activities to enhance life management skills. This work is administrated by a multi-professional team including the project workers, special advisers, the assistant manager, the principle officer, and the prison officers of the ward. Post-release work in the community is organized and co-ordinated by the project workers. This work includes professional tutoring, housing support, service guidance and social work with intoxicant abusers, work with the clients’ families and with other meaningful people close to the client.

Q. - Which measures can Finnish child welfare authorities undertake? Are rehabilitative measures included?

A. - The first step measures in child welfare consist of different open care measures, such as support interventions in community care. The Finnish Child Welfare Act obliges the authorities to undertake community-based supportive measures without delay if the health or development of a child or young person is endangered or not safeguarded by their environment, or if they are likely to endanger their own health or development.
In less problematic cases these measures are usually limited to one or a series of discussions with the young offender and his parents. If it becomes apparent through these discussions that there are serious problems in the home (economic problems, internal conflicts, etc.), an attempt will be made to resolve these problems. The family is then given certain opportunities to receive economic support, therapy, a contact person and other forms of support. In certain cases the family may get a social worker who can meet with them at home over a longer period in order to help the family members resolve various problems (e.g. the family’s economic planning, their leisure time problems, and conflicts in relations).
The list of concrete open care measures is extensive. In addition to economic and social support for the parents, they may include also psychological support and psychiatric services, substance abuse programs, school related work, structured open care programs for the children (for example MST), appointment of contact persons (mentors) etc.
The most intrusive child welfare measures are transfer of guardianship and placement in a foster home or in residential care. Foster care orders can be imposed both on voluntary and involuntary basis. In most cases all parties (the child and the parents) agree on the matter. For an involuntary care order the following three criteria need to be fulfilled: (1) The child’s health or development is risked either by (a) environmental reasons (often the parents’ own behaviour and substance abuse problems) or (b) due to the child’s own behaviour, (2) open care measures are deemed to be insufficient and (3) the care order is in the best interest of the child.

Q. - What made it possible the decline in Finnish rate of imprisonment after the 1970s?

A. - This change must be seen in connection with broader changes in social policy and in the general critics of institutional care. There was growing criminological evidence of the ineffectiveness of institutional treatment. At the same time, concerns over legal safeguards grew stronger. Also the fact our prisoner rates were much higher than our Nordic neighbour’s served as a political argument in the debate. And of course the fact, that criminal policy was not a political issues, and that the media retained a fairly reasonable role, made it possible to reach a political consensus to reduce our prisoner rates. Since the early 1970s around 20 to 25 law-reforms were carried in order to reduce the use of imprisonment, and with good results. In the early 1970s, Finland’s prisoner was the highest in Western Europe, but by the early 1990s we had the lowest figure among the EU countries.

Q. - Can you explain in which consist the informal victim-offender mediation service? Is it classified as a sanction? With which age group does its principal importance lie?

A. - In Finland mediation does not constitute a part of the criminal justice system, but cooperates with the system as far as the referral of cases and their further processing is concerned. Mediation may serve as a possible reason for waiving the imposition of criminal sanctions or mitigation of the sentence. Participation in mediation is always voluntary for all parties. The municipal social welfare authorities usually assist in coordinating the mediation services, but mediators are not considered public officials. They are unpaid volunteers who have taken a specific training course in preparation for the task.
Mediation has not been restricted to any specific age group. However, in practice it has strongest impact among juveniles. The annual number of mediation cases has now increased to over 10,000. Roughly one of five known juvenile offenses are taken into mediation.


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