By Thomas Anton Sandøy, Ståle Østhus, Anne Line Bretteville-Jensen
The penal repertoire for young offenders in Europe encompasses an increasing variety of alternative sanctions. Research indicates that the availability and implementation of these sanctions vary within jurisdictions, raising issues of unequal treatment for equal offences. Among possible factors associated with intra-jurisdictional disparities in alternative sentencing outcomes is the socioeconomic status of young offenders. This study investigates the social profile of diverted youth, thereby addressing social inequalities in alternative sanctioning. Register data on all 15- to 17-year olds charged with minor drug offences in Norway between 2005 and 2015 (N = 3209) were compared to a randomly drawn sample of non-offenders (N = 69,201). Offenders who were diverted from a fine to a conditional waiver of prosecution, either with or without rehabilitative measures, were classified with an alternative sanction. Socioeconomic status was measured by an indicator combining register data on household income and parental education. Probit regressions with sample selection were used to identify social gradients in alternative sanctioning. By extensive register linkages, we were able to control for a range of well-known confounders such as gender, immigrant status, family composition, parental crime, and geographical centrality. We found that the probability of receiving a conditional waiver of prosecution was around 5% points higher for youth from a medium-high socioeconomic status background and 8% points higher for youth from a high socioeconomic status background compared with their low socioeconomic status counterparts. The positive social gradient pertained to sanctioning with rehabilitative elements and not to minimal interventions. Social inequality in desistance-oriented sanctions, which may consolidate pre-existing inequalities in criminal charges, is likely influenced by the resources parents have at their disposal to get involved in their children’s legal processes.