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Friday 5th of June 2020

Press Room

IJJO Interviews- Esther Fernández Molina, professor of Criminology, University of Castilla-La Mancha

Tuesday 27th of February 2018 | Europe, Spain

Esther Fernández Molina is professor of Criminology at the University of Castilla-La Mancha and Academic Secretary of the Master’s degree in Criminology and Juvenile Crime at the same university. She is responsible for the Criminology Research team at the University of Castilla-La Mancha, and as such is principal researcher for various European, national and regional projects.

Her main areas of research are juvenile justice, trends in crime and public perception of crime; specifically, she is interested in the study of fear with regard to crime and public attitudes towards criminal justice and juvenile punishment. From 2013 to 2016, she was president of the Spanish Society of Criminological Research, and she continues to be involved with the society, contributing to the development of this discipline in Spain.

Considering the sources of information about juvenile delinquency which are currently relied on in Spain, what kind of information are you lacking or would you like to have at your disposal?

The problem in Spain of accessing official sources regarding crime is well known. In recent years, efforts have been made to improve the situation. These efforts have resulted in an improvement, but there still remains much to do. The information we have is obsolete (1 year old as a minimum), they are predefined data tables with very few categories, which are published in yearbooks, divided into provinces. With this very little can be done. The result is an unclear picture of what the situation really is.

What experts demand is to be able to have access to the databases, in order to use the information in accordance with the specific interests of each investigation. Having access to the main database would be ideal, it would allow us to create a much clearer image as well as enabling us to use official information in investigations and thus expand our knowledge about the realities of crime.

Besides, it is essential that those responsible for making the reports where this information is presented explain clearly what the process of producing the data has been. In a democratic society, the transparency of official information is fundamental. We need to know what the criteria used to classify the information. In this way, the researcher can know the scope of the information that is provided, and its transparency has avoided manipulation. Being official information, it´s complicated to avoid a certain degree of ´fabrication´ of data, but if there are some minimum requirements, it´s more difficult to alter this data.

And if we are talking about ideals, it would be interesting to have an annual series of self-reported figures at our disposal. Having an alternative source of information in place would be very interesting, because it would allow us to compare with official data and in this way have a much clearer picture of what is going on. In particular this would prove very useful in contrasting criminal tendencies. The economic effort involved in carrying out an annual survey is very small. For that reason I do not understand how public institutions like INJUVE (Spanish Youth Institute), for example, or other national institutions, do not choose to implement it. If we think about the advantages that it´s availability would bring in improving our social and criminal policies regarding young people, I’m sure that it would ultimately be a cost-effective measure.

What are the main factors attributed to the progressive decline of juvenile delinquency as a whole in Spain during the last few decades?

The international scientific community has for some time been trying to reflect on why crime figures in general are falling, in particular juvenile crime. It´s important to be aware of the reasons which explain this decline, because from this important lessons about criminal policy can be learned. We can´t squander this opportunity. We need to know what is being done well, this is a social responsibility for scientists. There are many hypotheses which have been suggested.

Our research team has spent some years analysing the Spanish situation and in particular the area of youth crime. It’s difficult to explain it in only a few sentences and, as often happens with crime, there is no one cause, but rather a variety of factors which can explain what’s happening.

We believe that the decline has to do with, on the one hand, a social context which is becoming ever more intolerant to violence and that is also permeating young people. Although every generation tends to think that younger generations are worse, scientific evidence suggests that young people of today aren’t more violent than those of a few decades ago, but rather the opposite.

Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, new generations are more controlled than ever. Parents and teachers are much more aware of what young people do and there is a widespread concern about raising and educating children well. Nowadays it’s not just that adults control more, it’s that they do it better.

This is especially evident in the area of youth justice. We are convinced that a large part of the decline in juvenile crime can be attributed to effective youth crime policy. The youth justice model proposed by the Spanish Law on Juvenile Justice, which seeks a balance between punishment and education, seems to be paying off. Crime is falling and recidivism figures are as well. Therefore, something must be being done well in this area. The related investigations which have been done tell us that community-based interventions that are being carried out with young offenders seem to be working.

On the other hand, there’s a particularly relevant fact, the main decline is attributed to crime committed by boys, while crime among the girl population remains stable. Therefore, whatever it is that is being done well, it seems to be with boys that it is working particularly well. In the Symposium organised by the SEIC (Spanish Society of Criminological Research) in 2015 in Albacete, Rosemary Barberet suggested that Criminology should displace the gender-crime debate in favour of exploring the relationship between masculinity and crime, since what seems to be associated with the greater predisposition to crime is not being a man, but a certain way of being a man. And it’s exactly this which seems to be being corrected by new generations.

In other words, there are some who consider that part of the decline in crime can be attributed to a more equal society; and that, despite those who predicted that an increase in equality would bring about an increase in women’s offending, it has surprisingly and positively resulted in a decrease in male offending. There are many researchers, like Steven Pinker, who are convinced that the decrease in offending is more an indicator that society in general is evolving positively and that, contrary to popular belief, we live in a less violent age in which advances made in the area of human rights have managed to improve the quality of life of many, and have humanised society.

Has there been a significant change in the evolution of the most common profiles of children in conflict with the law?

This is a question which is often debated in the public domain, every new development is perceived as something that overwhelms and cannot be tackled, due to being unknown. However, the scientific investigation on young people suggests that there isn’t that much new. The how and the where may be different, but the aetiology behind youth crime remains the same.

Nowadays more crimes are committed online, and that is understandable. Kids, who before would spend a lot of time on the street with their friends, now spend whole afternoons at home because they are not alone, they are connected to their friends. Therefore, it’s normal that we speak about cyberbullying instead of bullying; but not much has changed when it comes to the reasons why young people bully each other. Simply, we have changed the setting, but kids still behave how they did before.

Another of the behaviour patterns which seems to have emerged is that of young people who attack their parents. In fact, in Spain this is the only behaviour pattern which is increasing, according to official data. The main problem which we are facing with regard to this type of crime is that we have neither official nor self-reported information about what young people did before this kind of behaviour pattern became apparent. Another conclusion we can draw is that this increasing phenomenon is linked to the decrease in the dark figure.

As is already the case for partner abuse, there is a greater awareness in society about the fact that these domestic abuse behaviours don’t have to remain silent within the private domain of the home; and when the situation becomes untenable, the victims find the strength to report it and ask for protection from the authorities. However, it remains unclear what is truly new about this phenomenon. A piece of information revealed by investigations undertaken by our research team, as well as others, is that many of these young people who attack their parents are not only violent at home, but also are violent in general.

The number of crimes committed by young people on the Internet has increased drastically in the last decade. In your opinion, could certain criminogenic factors be more prevalent in this medium?

Like I said earlier, the only thing that has changed with the Internet is the setting. Kids commit more crimes on the Internet than adults because they are habitual users of the Web. Young people have very easily incorporated technology into their lives. In fact, as is often said, when these young people were born, the Internet was already there, they are digital natives. Because of this, it is understandable that they use it. All studies undertaken on the use of IT tell us that young people are those who spend the most time using it.

In the area of criminality, from my point of view, the principal factor which the Internet adds to the equation is opportunity. The lack of control has made the Internet a place where opportunity for crime is much greater. Hence, in the future, the main challenge that criminologists will face will be understanding the Internet as much as or even better than young offenders, so that these professionals will be able to block as much as possible the opportunity to commit crime.

Regarding the different programmes/interventions that are being carried out in the field of juvenile justice in Spain in general, do you think the gender perspective is taken enough into account, so as to meet the specific needs of girls?

We don’t have evidence that the juvenile justice system is operating with a gender perspective. It is assumed that there is a neutral perspective, but this is not entirely true. Intervention programmes being used have actually been designed for boys, but in practice they are applied equally to boys and girls without distinction. We don’t have evidence of whether the specific needs of girls are being taken into account.

We know that it is more common among girls to have issues relating to physical and mental health and to have more previous histories of physical and sexual abuse; and these issues are not usually taken into account in the instruments and protocols used in the system. This is important because, regardless of the trajectory of their criminal history, these factors increase vulnerability in their future development.

Do you believe that in general there is a need to improve these intervention programmes with regard to the evaluation of their effectiveness?

Yes, this is one of the substantial challenges for youth justice in Spain. In general, few evaluations are carried out, and therefore we do not have elements which allow us to rigorously evaluate the effectiveness of what is being done. Based on the limited data from investigations, the general impression is moderately positive; but it’s necessary to know a lot more, with regard to gender, but also with regard to the very intervention model that is being applied. 

As said earlier, both offending and recidivism are falling but in reality we don’t know with much certainty which strategies are working best. The adoption of actuarial practices, which has been progressively occurring in the system within the last decade, ought to be offering up valuable information by now, but this hasn’t happened. In part, this is because the decentralised system in this country with regard to child intervention stops us from completing what we’re trying to do on a national level. There are differences between regions and in many cases even within regions themselves.

But it’s also difficult to know more because the programmes often stem from designs that aren’t very well defined, which makes a rigorous evaluation very difficult. I believe that it’s necessary for professionals to rely on evidence-based practices that guide the work that is being done with kids, and to evaluate the impact of their work.

In what way do you think that the judicial procedures in Spain could improve so that they are best suited to young people, in line with the Council of Europe’s guidelines?

The Council of Europe’s has given clear guidelines on what needs to be done in juvenile justice systems in order to continue this child-friendly specialisation. It’s true that since the first juvenile courts were created, this objective of designing a justice system adapted to young people was already in place, and much has been done since then. But nowadays scientific investigation has continued to discover elements that are important to take into account so that juvenile justice can truly be a justice designed for and aimed at young people.

In this sense, there are 2 key issues which should be taken forward. One is participation. The Committee on the Rights of the Child has long said that this is a key element when dealing with minors, especially in the case of adolescents. The actors in the system must demonstrate that they are willing to listen and take seriously what young people have to say. For this, the context is important, it must be a space that does not intimidate children, a space that gives them confidence.

That is why it is very important to adapt the courtrooms to be non-hostile places. It is essential to eliminate the excessive formalism of the courtrooms (stands, robes, etc.) which are loaded with symbolism, because the effect this achieves is to intimidate adolescents. We need spaces that invite dialogue. In addition to context, it is essential that the authorities are able to demonstrate to young people that they have really listened to them; even if the final decision isn´t the one that they wanted.

This is why it is important that when resolutions are adopted, we explain to them why this decision has been taken and in which way their opinion has/hasn’t been taken into account. That will be the guarantee for young people to acknowledge that their opinion has really been heard and not just as a mere formality. In addition, scientific research continues to provide evidence in recent years about the importance of feeling heard by the system. When this happens, the perceptions of justice improve, the legitimacy of the system is reinforced and compliance with the law increases.

The other key issue is information. It’s important to explain to young people what is happening, why it is happening and what is going to happen in the future. Reducing uncertainty is important in building trust. Teenagers are a group with high expectations of being treated like adults and are particularly sensitive to being treated with dignity. In order to achieve both of these, information is key so that young people can feel involved in the process. This is why we should give them information about all the important issues: what their rights are, what’s going to happen, who they have to speak to, what the consequences of the decisions they will have to adopt are.

For all of this, the language used is essential. The authorities ought to be able to communicate effectively with young people, and in order to achieve this they need to adapt. It’s essential to use accessible and understandable language. This is also necessary in order to achieve the effective participation mentioned earlier. Therefore, it will be essential to provide the actors of the system with effective communication tools with regard to young people. It is of paramount importance to strengthen the skills of professionals in order to make their work more effective. In a recent investigation we have determined that the perceptions of adults who intervene in the system do not coincide with those of young people. There is no point in having committed professionals who make significant efforts to do their job well if then the children are unable to grasp what is required of them.

In short, participation and information are the objectives, while the use of procedures and friendly spaces, together with accessible language, are the instruments necessary to achieve these objectives. This is the strategy we must employ.

  • International Juvenile Justice Observatory (IJJO). Belgian Public Utility Foundation

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  • Head Office: Rue Armand Campenhout, nº 72 bte 10. 1050. Brussels. Belgium

    Phone: 00 32 262 988 90. Fax: 00 32 262 988 99. oijj@oijj.org

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