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Cantons lock arms over young offenders

Working with a young offender in a metal workshop Keystone Archive

Cantons in western Switzerland are joining forces in a unique venture to handle the growing number of young offenders jailed by the courts.

A new detention centre has just opened in Valais and two others – including one specifically for girls aged 15-17 – are planned for Neuchâtel and Vaud.

Aimed at repeat offenders, the Pramont educational centre in canton Valais was set up in response to the increase in juvenile crime.

Over the past decade the number of youths convicted by Swiss courts has almost doubled from 8,000 to 14,000. They are committing more serious crimes and those responsible are getting younger.

The number of cases of bodily harm committed by young offenders rose from 811 to 1,375 between 1999 and 2004.

“In certain cases imprisonment is the only option, but we have very few detention centres in western Switzerland,” said Michel Lachat, president of the association of youth-court judges in the French-speaking part of the country.

Until now, young criminals found guilty of serious offences have been sent to the three existing detention centres in the region: Geneva, Lausanne and Prêles near Neuchâtel.

“But these centres are always full. Once a sentence has been handed down, they often have to wait weeks, even months, before they can serve their time,” added Lachat.

Detention centres

The only other option is an adult prison – but not for much longer. New federal legislation on the detention of minors, which is due to come into force in 2007, forbids them from being placed in adult jails.

Even so, prison “should be the last resort”, according to Christian Varone, director of prisons in canton Valais. He says vulnerable teenagers who end up inside often find themselves being schooled in a life of crime when what they need is a proper education.

The Pramont facility has been set up with two objectives in mind: to offset the lack of places in detention centres and to cater for the specific needs of young offenders.

The first will be difficult to achieve since the new centre is already full. But everything is in place to ensure that the authorities achieve their second objective.

“Young offenders will receive help from teachers, psychologists and social workers. They will be able to work, take courses and catch up on their education,” said Lachat. “In contrast to prison, they won’t be simply stuck on their own in a cell.”

Serious offenders and those with psychiatric problems will be housed in a separate unit to keep them apart from other inmates.

Young offenders

The Pramont educational facility forms part of an intercantonal strategy for dealing with young offenders. Canton Neuchâtel is set to open a similar centre in 2007 specifically for girls aged 15-17.

“We have never had a detention centre in western Switzerland to cater for this group,” said Lachat.

The third stage of the programme will be the construction of a detention centre for young offenders in canton Vaud. But much depends on whether the funds can be found.

Places in the three facilities – Pramont, Neuchâtel and Vaud – will be available to all French-speaking cantons that fund the various projects. It is the first time in Switzerland that cantons have taken a joint approach to dealing with young offenders.

In the German-speaking part of the country, where there is also a shortage of youth-detention places, similar plans are afloat. But, according to Lachat, they are still in their early stages.

swissinfo, Alexandra Richard

Juvenile crime in Switzerland has almost doubled in the past 10 years.
The number of cases of bodily harm committed by young offenders rose from 811 to 1,375 between 1999 and 2004.
The number of sexual offences rose from 157 to 254 over the same period.
Youth-court judges say offenders are getting younger.

The intercantonal strategy comprises three stages:

The Pramont educational centre for young offenders, which can hold 23 youths aged 15-17 and 34 people in total. Cost: SFr1.75 million ($1.35 million).

An educational detention centre for girls aged 15-17. Scheduled to open in canton Neuchâtel in 2007.

A detention centre for young offenders is planned for canton Vaud.

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