Why YouthLab: Our value proposition

The moment a young person comes in conflict with the law, is arrested and even deprived of his liberty, they enter a new and intimidating world, run by adults that speak a language full of legal jargon. Most young people feel alienated and lost, which has a negative impact on their wellbeing, contact with professionals, perception of fairness of the procedures and ability to participate.

This alienation process is largely a matter of language and communication, as many justice professionals speak in a legal and instrumental system-world language, which is a different language compared to what the young person knows and understands. Professionals also find it challenging to engage and communicate with young people, because of the split reality they are working in: the legal world and the world of the child with its own language, norms and values.

To re-engage the young person in the criminal justice process, the language and communication skills of the system-world (of legal professionals) need to be connected with the expectations and (non)verbal communication skills of young people. Child-friendly communication skills of professionals emphasize respect, demonstrate that young people are taken seriously and treated fairly, and give them the means to increase control of their own case and life.

This is what YouthLab provides: a trust-based space where professionals working in the judiciary and (forensic) youth care can learn from youth experienced in the system and improve their competences in working with minors.

“What motivates me in this project is being able to see professionals in a different light, in a better light, being able to communicate without this hierarchical relationship, even if the respect remains present. I also like the fact that I can share what I have experienced, knowing that I will be listened to and that it will help other young people.”

Young YouthLab trainer, Italy

Bridging the world of young offenders and justice professionals

Up to a point, the world of youth care and of the judiciary in the participating countries is of a systemic kind: it concerns large numbers of youth, reams of dossiers, as well as policy changes and/or budgetary deficits. Within every bureaucratic system there is the risk of the rationality of the system overpowering the life of its subjects – this risk is even greater when the subjects do not feel free to speak out.

Both in youth care and in the judiciary, where there is an unequal power relationship with the youth, the risk of the system overpowering the lived reality of youth is strongly present. For this reason, making the perspectives of the youth present and visible can be a challenge, despite the fact that youth is – or should be – at the center of all these systems. The YouthLab offers these perspectives.

Watch below the trailer of the mini-documentary ‘Exchanging Perspectives. You can watch the full documentary here.

The professional – an existential reality check

The gains of participating in the YouthLab can be plotted on a continuum, ranging from the understanding of youth perspectives to practical skills.

On one end there is the existential reality-check: ‘What is the meaning of my work in this young person’s life?’

Professionals working in the judiciary are in charge of applying the law and/or educational measures and, consequently, they (might) add suffering to the life of a young person – despite their best intentions and legitimate grounds. The severity of this task implies a heavy responsibility – a responsibility that YouthLab participants experience very strongly. In some cases, it is sufficient just to hear what a visit to a courtroom means for a youth—oftentimes, that in itself can have an enormous impact on the professional.

At the other end of the imaginary continuum, there are the practical, trainable skills that are gained: What should one do or not do? Which words resonate with the youth, and through which types of behavior do you lose (or gain?) their understanding?

Justice professionals need to hear criticism, to question themselves. Don’t hesitate to be totally frank with us, we don’t have many opportunities to know how the youth are experiencing our interventions in their lives.

Member of the Public Prosecutor’s Office
Youth x Professional Exchange participant, Belgium