Teenage1 Criminality in Estonia

Jaan Ginter
pp. 74-75

Teenage criminality has been discussed among criminologists far more than the criminality of any other age group. It is possible to suggest different reasons for this:

1. Teenagers are criminally the most active age group. For example in Estonia, the criminal activity of persons aged 16 to 17 years (incl.) was four times higher last year than average;

2. Persons who start their criminal activity as teenagers tend to have long criminal careers;

3. Persons who start their criminal activity as teenagers are more prone to commit more serious crimes during their criminal career than persons who start their criminal activities later, that is, that teenage criminality may be regarded as a seed-bed for adult criminality. This tendency may be explained in two ways: firstly, teenage criminals simply have a longer period of time to commit crimes; and second, teenage criminals become less involved with conventional society and hence become more disposed to criminal behavior;

4. It is believed that there are specific causes of teenage criminality, in that, there are substantial differences between the causes of teenage criminality and adult criminality; and

5. There is much more optimism about the opportunities for reformation of teenage criminals.

For all the above-mentioned reasons, teenage criminality is also a particularly crucial issue also in Estonia.

From the beginning of 1980’s, the Estonian crime rate has varied substantially (see Figure 1). The crime rate increased from 1980 to 1984. In 1985, 1986 and 1987, the crime rate decreased. However, from 1988 to 1992 the crime rate has more than tripled. From 1993 to 1996, the crime rate has been quite stable.

At the same time, the proportion of teenagers among convicted persons has stayed quite stable (see Figure 2). During the years of the most rapid increase in the crime rate (1989 - 1992) however, the proportion of teenagers among convicted persons dropped. It should be remembered of course, that the crime rate and the conviction rate cannot be compared without considering the clearance rate and the ratio of crimes committed per criminal. Firstly, convicted teenagers have committed more crimes per person than convicted adults. However, as the ratio of committed crimes per convicted teenager has remained even more stable, this issue need not be discussed further. Second, the decrease of the proportion of teenagers among convicted persons may be explained by police not having enough time to investigate crimes committed by teenagers during those years when crime rapidly increased. As it is impossible to determine the actual ratio of crimes committed by teenagers of all registered crimes, conviction statistics must be relied upon.

If only the data indicated in Figure 2 would be considered, perhaps teenage criminality in Estonia would not be worried about very much. But if the last four years’ data is looked at more closely, the picture becomes not so peaceful. During those years, the proportion of teenagers among convicted persons has increased. This increase has not been extremely rapid but as the overall number of convicted persons has also increased, the number of convicted teenagers has increased during the last four years substantially (see Figure 3).

In Estonia, the prevailing crime in the structure of teenage criminality is theft (as it is in other countries). In 1996, of all convicted teenagers, 71 % were convicted for theft. At the same time, very few teenagers were convicted for violent crimes: 3.5 % for robbery; 0.6 % for rape; 0.6 % for aggravated assault; and 0.6 % for murder.

The majority of teenagers commit crimes in groups (81.9% in 1996) and a growing number of groups also involve adults (37.4 % of convicted teenagers committed their crimes with adults).

An increasing number of convicted teenagers do not attend school or have a job (33.8 % in 1996). The ratio of convicted teenagers who committed crime while intoxicated (27.7 % in 1996) is significantly lower than the same ratio for all convicted persons (42.4 % in 1996).

In Estonia, the most prevalent sentence for convicted teenagers is conditional imprisonment (see Table 1). As indicated in the table, there is not a great variety of different punishments to choose from in the present Estonian criminal law. The present Estonian version of conditional imprisonment is quite different from probation, as it is known for example in the United States. Teenagers who have been sentenced to conditional imprisonment have the feeling that their crimes have been left unpunished. The Criminal Code allows that several conditions may be required to be fulfilled by a person sentenced to conditional imprisonment, but in practice these additional conditions are seldom utilized.

Table 1

Sentence 1995 1996
Number Percentage Number Percentage
Conditional imprisonment 998 71.2 1047 67.5
Unconditional imprisonment 194 13.9 281 18.1
Fine 154 11.0 172 11.1
Short-term arrest 15 1.1 20 1.3
Released from punishment 39 2.8 31 2.0
Total 1400 100 1551 100

As there are few alternatives to unconditional imprisonment, the percentage (and even more the number) of teenagers sentenced to imprisonment is growing significantly. In 1996, 281 teenagers were sentenced to imprisonment. The growing number of teenage criminals and the low efficiency of utilized sentences has induced the proposals for reform of the criminal law described in this same volume in the paper by Professor Sootak.


1 In this article the term “teenage criminal” is utilized to refer to criminals under the age of 18 (excl).