The Netherlands has a special criminal justice system for juveniles, recognising the special vulnerability of children and based on notions of education, reform and reintegration. Restorative justice elements are present in all levels of the Dutch juvenile penal system. At the prosecution and court levels these include alternative sanctions such as community service.
At the police level a unique form of alternative settlement is offered to young first offenders* who have committed certain minor offences: the Halt programme. Juveniles who opt for this type of settlement agree to carry out a project that normally includes damage compensation and/or community service/training up to 20 hours. Even though the Halt procedure is included in the Dutch penal code, it can be regarded as an alternative to the formal justice system because charges are officially dropped once a successful Halt programme is completed, the juvenile is not prosecuted and a criminal record is consequently avoided.
Halt means ‘Stop’ but refers also, in Dutch, to there being an alternative way. Halt was launched in Rotterdam in 1981 and the objective of the first Halt office was to combat vandalism. The background to Halt was the steady increase in vandalism and the absence of an effective response to this kind of undesirable behaviour. On the one hand, the response of a police warning was regarded as ‘too soft’ and did not make amends for the cost and trauma caused by the damage whilst on the other hand, prosecution by the judicial authorities was ‘too serious’ for these relatively minor offences. Furthermore, the range of responses open to the judicial authorities was limited (reprimand, out-of-court fine); there were often long waiting periods before prosecution commenced, and doubts as to the educational value of this manner of proceeding.
Now, almost 30 years later, there are 18 Halt offices, spread all across the Netherlands. Children and young offenders up to 18 years of age may be referred to Halt by the police for a Halt programme. The ethos underlying Halt’s approach is that toleration of undesirable and punishable conduct actually rewards such conduct. If this type of behaviour goes unpunished, it becomes apparently acceptable behaviour and may then be repeated or lead to even less desirable behaviour. The Halt programme clearly shows juveniles that criminal activity will not be tolerated.
Halt is also active in the different areas that help prevent juvenile crime, such as advisory services, educational programmes and other crime prevention activities.
* first offenders: juveniles have a maximum of two chances to participate in a Halt programme.