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Cases (Un)like Any Other

The Socio-Judicial Follow-up of Terrorism Cases in French-Speaking Belgium
Des dossiers (pas) comme les autres. L’accompagnement socio-judiciaire des dossiers de terrorisme en Belgique francophone
Benjamin Mine, Alexia Jonckheere, Patrick Jeuniaux et Isabelle Detry
Traduction de Gail Ann Fagen et Dustin Langan
Cet article est une traduction de :
Des dossiers (pas) comme les autres [fr]


Cet article entend contribuer aux discussions sur l’influence des politiques de contre-radicalisation et de contreterrorisme sur les pratiques professionnelles de travailleurs sociaux à partir d’un examen des changements observés au niveau du travail social en justice en Belgique francophone dus à l’accroissement ces dernières années du nombre de dossiers de terrorisme ou concernés par une problématique d’extrémisme violent (aussi appelés les dossiers « terro ») ayant été traités par les maisons de justice (lesquelles s’apparentent pour une partie de leurs missions aux services de probation français). Les analyses s’appuient sur un matériau composé d’entretiens qualitatifs menés auprès d’assistants de justice et de représentants de la direction de maisons de justice locales.

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The research from which this article is based was made possible thanks to funding granted by the Belgian Federal Science Policy Office (Belspo) to the Criminology Operational Directorate of the National Institute of Criminalistics and Criminology (NICC). This funding was granted as part of the FAR project (Folks, Authorities and Radicalism: between polarisation and social construction –, dealing with radicalisation, and selected as part of the call for projects of the Brain-Be programme (Belgian Research Action through Interdisciplinary Networks). This project is carried out jointly with the Centre for the Study of Political Life (Cevipol) of the ULB (Free University of Brussels), and the Interculturalism, Migration and Minorities Research Centre (IMMRC) at KU Leuven (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven).

In addition to Belspo and our colleagues from the FAR project, we would especially like to thank the AGMJ, the managements of the maisons de justice and the justice assistants for having provided all the resources that were necessary for our work (whether via access to documents or participation in meetings or interviews). Finally, we would like to thank Anne Levy-Morelle for the stimulating exchanges that we were able to have on our respective works, from which the title of this manuscript is inspired, as well as the two anonymous evaluators for their relevant comments, which helped us improve it. However, the opinions expressed and any errors and remaining gaps are the sole responsibility of the authors.

1. Introduction

  • 1 Presentation of the General Administration of the French-speaking maisons de justice (AGMJ) on the (...)
  • 2 Memorandum n° 2019/01 of the General Administration of the French-speaking maisons de justice of 5  (...)

1In Belgium, people subject to judicial control yet neither imprisoned nor released are followed by justice assistants, namely social workers who are mandated by the judicial authorities. They work in maisons de justice (“houses of justice”) and are responsible for following up on the enforcement of the sentences or measures in the community, such as community service, or probation orders. The justice assistants’ task is to monitor both the reintegration of persons into society by supporting their request for desistance, and protecting society itself, during and after undertaking their mission.1 All cases are subject to this general framework, regardless of the offense that gave rise to the judicial mandate, and those related to terrorism or violent extremism are no exception. Nonetheless, it is obvious that since the attacks that hit Europe and Belgium in particular, this type of case has caused an upheaval in the justice assistants’ daily work both in virtue of the number of cases involved and the emotions they elicit. The massive arrival of this type of case in the maisons de justice have indeed unleashed a flood of questionings, to the point that a demand to structure the justice assistants’ interventions quickly emerged. In the end, these demands led to the generalisation of professional rules that now guide the intervention of the justice assistants in this area2 and circumscribe their position in the ‘multi-agency’ approach promoted by the Belgian government in the fight against radicalisation and prevention of terrorism (Hardyns et al., 2021).

2This approach, fairly widespread in Europe, in particular in the Netherlands (Lenos, 2019) and the United Kingdom (Chapman, 2019), consists in the early and efficient identification of individuals that are liable to evolve towards a process of violent radicalisation. This is done by encouraging cooperation among the services, improved information sharing, joint decision-making and coordinated efforts (Hardyns et al., 2021). A special feature of this system is the involvement of local actors. In fact, their role is deemed essential insofar as they are “closest to citizens, have access to most information, and are therefore in the best position to identify vulnerable individuals and to develop and implement a tailor-made approach” (Hardyns et al., 2021, 23).

3This strategy, however, does raise some questions. In the multiple fields of social work, this approach is seen to reinforce the dominance of security and control logics to the detriment of all that characterises social work as such. While this latter approach is based on ethics, equity and individual rights, the “multi-agency” approach, focused on risk prevention and directed towards detecting the early warning signs of radicalisation or acts of terrorism, interferes with social work as it has been carried out until now (Finch, McKendrick, 2018; Ragazzi, 2014; Stanley et al., 2017).

4Several questions thus come to mind. Does the security wave that is presently affecting justice-related social workers entail new reconfigurations of their activities? In other words, what evolutions have been caused by the massive increase in terrorism cases? How do the justice assistants come to grips with these cases? What type of management is imposed on them? What is their professional footing in the face of the new stakes for security? We can only observe that this facet of social work in the justice system is still quite sparsely documented, as is the influence of counter-radicalisation and counter-terrorism policies on the professional practices of social workers (Stanley et al., 2018).

5Our study intends to contribute to discussions regarding the influence of counter-radicalisation and counter-terrorism on the professional practices of social workers, more specifically those working for the justice system, based on an examination of the way the maisons de justice in French-speaking Belgium have coped with the massive influx of cases regarding people found guilty of terrorism. Our hypothesis is that the impact on the justice assistants is not different from what has been observed in the international literature on social work in general.

6This paper is grounded in a criminological reflection on the rationalities at work within the penal justice system and the recompositions they bring to, or even induce on, their professional actors (Vigour, 2008), in particular social workers. These professionals have already had to face three major evolutions over the past decades: the tension that appeared between their assistance and control functions, a managerial normativity and the increasing technicity in their activities, especially through the deployment of information technology tools (see Larminat, 2018; Bauwens, Roose, 2017; Jonckheere, Cartuyvels, 2017; Beyens, Roose, 2016; Jonckheere, 2013a, 2013b; Bouagga, 2012; Kaminski, 2010; Mary, 2009; De Coninck et al., 2005).

7This article is organised in four sections. First, we offer a general perspective on the evolution of the social workers’ professional practices in a context of security policy deployment. Secondly, we report on the specificity of justice system social work as it is presently organised in French-speaking Belgium and the methodology followed to explore this aspect. In the third section we analyse how the justice assistants, in 2015, suddenly needed to cope with a heavy influx of terrorism cases assigned to them. In the fourth section, we analyse the issues that justice assistants now face in the daily management of such cases, the way these cases challenge their professional ethos and what adaptations of their practices we can observe in this context.

2. Social practices tested by security policies

8The relations between security policies and social policies are longstanding and complex (Ragazzi, 2017). The development of a ‘multi-agency’ approach promoted over the past two decades through counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation policies – especially through the Prevent programme, which is one of the cornerstones of the European approach to fighting radicalisation and preventing terrorism – seems to have extended and reinforced the prevalence of an approach dominated by control and surveillance, which can be seen in several fields of social work (schools, hospitals, neighbourhood centres, etc.) (Stanley et al., 2017; Stanley et al., 2018). Some thus speak of a “police multi-culturalism” (Ragazzi, 2014), a “securitisation of social policies” (Finch, McKendrick, 2018; Ragazzi, 2017; Stanley et al., 2017), a “colonisation” by the security imperative (Michon, 2020) or even, in the field of probation, of a “polibation officer” in reference to the ever closer relations between the police and probation services as well as to a convergence of their practices (Nash, 2008).

9The professional practices of the social workers no longer seem to be governed by the promotion of ethics, social justice and human rights that characterises the profession, but rather by logics of security and control that revolve around risks and are directed towards detecting the early warning signs of radicalisation or of acts of terrorism. The attempt to prevent terrorist offences from occurring, compromises the ability to provide humane, rights-based, and equitable social work (Stanley et al., 2017). Even more, the search for intelligence by ad hoc services would in itself be counter-productive “when it tries to, or forces, the transformation of social workers into intelligence agents” [our translation] (Puech, 2015).

10This evolution reflects three main corollaries. First the fight against radicalisation and the prevention of terrorism seemingly induce an “ethic of silence” among the social workers; they are “not speaking back or challenging the duty due to the ensnared nature of the dominant securitised discourses, which prevent counter-discourses from emerging” (Stanley et al., 2017, 2018). The reports produced by the police and intelligence services are seen to have a particular influence (enrolment) in that they provide a form of documented proof, on the basis of which the State would have legitimacy to act and which the social workers could not call into question.

11Secondly, in view of the higher interest that the fight against radicalisation and the prevention of terrorism would have for the security of society and the population, few questions are raised about sharing information despite the stakes involved regarding confidentiality, professional secrecy, privacy or even the receipt and use of sensitive data by actors relatively unfamiliar with the intelligence culture (Stanley et al., 2017).

12Thirdly, new ethical dilemmas appear among social workers who are incited to be judgmental (especially regarding behaviours that need to be reported to the judicial authorities or the security and intelligence services) rather than supportive (Verba, 2020, 24). This applies even though the judgments and the risks evaluated on this basis by the staff of the security and intelligence services are noticeably different from to that of the social workers, a difficulty that is nevertheless not specific to the question of radicalisation (Michon, 2020, 49).

3. The institutional position and legal framework of the maisons de justice

  • 3 Nevertheless, the joint circular of 18 February 2019 for a global approach to violent radicalism, e (...)

13Created in Belgium in the late 1990s, the maisons de justice have undergone a continuous evolution that mobilise their capacity for adaptation. It is in this context of permanent adjustment that the tidal wave of terrorism cases hit them in 2015. The institutionalisation of these maisons, in 1999, enabled them to assemble a set of social workers who hitherto had intervened in different services of the Belgian justice administration. Yet above all, it marked a territorialisation of social practices in the justice system, along with a widening gap between interventions in prison and those undertaken on the outside, the latter being included in the job description of the justice assistants.3 However, for a long time the maisons de justice reported to the same hierarchical authority as the prison facilities. Not until 2007 was a specific entity created for them within the justice administration. This organisational change freed them of their mandating authority (prison directorate and judicial authorities) and helped the justice assistants to consolidate a specific professional identity of their own. The most notable change nevertheless occurred a few years later when, to the surprise of all, the political authorities decided to transfer their competences from the Federal State to the federated entities, during the sixth reform of the State. This transfer was finalised on 1 January 2015. Since that time the Belgian maisons de justice report to three separate institutions: the French-speaking Community for the maisons de justice discussed in this document, the Flemish-speaking Community and the German-speaking Community.

  • 4 For example, see the law of 20 July 1990 on pre-trial detention or articles 37 quinquies and follow (...)
  • 5 Text on the site: (consulted 30 November 2020).

14As for many justice professionals (Kaminski, 2015), the justice assistants take on a case only on court order: they do not act on their own authority but are mandated, often by a judicial authority such as an investigating judge or a court, especially in order to ensure guidance for those sentenced or to deal with those on remand. Consequently they are bound by rules governing each intervention framework.4 In addition to these legal rules, the maisons de justice also have organisational regulations, in particular managerial processes that are already well documented, with the aim of streamlining management or homogenising practices (Mary, 2009; Bauwens, 2009; Jonckheere, 2013a; Sabbe, 2020). The work itself is governed by professional rules that guide the justice assistant on the attitude, skills, knowledge, etc. expected in a given situation. In particular the justice assistants are guided by a Professional Ethics Code and a so-called vision paper on the guidance of perpetrators. This text describes five basic principles for socio-judicial guidance, namely: the emancipatory approach, fostering responsibility, non-normativity, non-substitution and limitation of any harm that may result from the penal intervention.5 We should also note, among the professional rules directly linked to thetopic of this paper, the memorandum of 5 March 2019 for cases regarding terrorism or violent extremism; although these rules are enforced in all the French-speaking maisons de justice, they may nevertheless be applied in different ways depending on specific local conditions.

  • 6 On this subject, see Itzhaky, York (2005); Sweifach et al. (2010).

15Later developments focused on the penal missions undertaken by the maisons de justice (conditional release as an alternative to pre-trial detention, probation, community service, release on court order, electronic monitoring). In this context, the justice assistants ensure the guidance of the persons concerned and, in certain cases, conduct social enquiries. Services for victims are not studied here, even if the justice assistants are equally involved with both the perpetrators and the victims. We have not included this facet because we considered that an analysis of professional practices with regard to victims required a specific research framework that was not possible to put in place.6

  • 7 The notion of violent extremism is an institutional category not defined explicitly by the General (...)
  • 8 With the authorization of the AGMJ directors we contacted all the local French-speaking units (n=5) (...)

16The empirical material used below consists of the grey literature (internal documents, memoranda) to which we had access as well as of semi-directive interviews with justice assistants (n=7), and members of the local management team of maisons de justice (n=4) involved in the follow-up of cases of pre-trial or convicted offenders for terrorist infractions in virtue of articles 137 to 141ter of the Belgian Penal Code, or those suspected of violent extremism – which will be designated by the generic name “terro”, echoing the term commonly used by the professional actors encountered in the study.7 The interviews took place between 1 August 2019 and 30 November 2019.8 These interviews lasted an average of 90 minutes. They were all recorded, completely transcribed and rendered anonymous for the needs of the analysis. The material was then encoded and analysed inductively, in line with the precepts of anchored theorisation (Glaser, Strauss, 1967), by means of the NVivo software.

Table I. The sample of interviewees



Ed. Background

Seniority (in MJ)




> 20 years




> 20 years




> 10 to 20 years




> 10 to 20 years




> 5 to 10 years




> 20 years




> 10 to 20 years




> 20 years




> 10 to 20 years




> 5 to 10 years




> 20 years

SW: social worker; PSY: psychologist; C: criminologist; Anthropo: anthropologist; SPo: political scientist.

17Table I, detailing the interviewees, shows a gender imbalance of the persons being questioned (just one man for 10 women), which nonetheless reflects the imbalance affecting the overall staff of the General Administration of the French-speaking maisons de justice (AGMJ). Indeed, in 2019, 76% of the staff were women and 24% were men,9 a proportion that had been noted for years in the maisons de justice.10 The interviewees also benefited from a significant seniority, which clearly shaped their view of the terrorism cases that had overwhelmed their practices.

4. Receipt of the case files in the maison de justice and their assignment to a justice assistant

18A massive number of “terro” case files arrived at the maisons de justice in 2015, greatly impacting the justice assistants who were in charge of them. We will return later to this massive and sudden arrival of cases in the particular context of the attacks in Paris and then in Brussels, before describing the process of assigning them locally.

4.1. Uneasiness regarding the first cases and ambivalence about their treatment

19The arrival of the first files in 2015 raised mixed feelings among the justice assistants designated to follow the cases. The climate of the time, spawned by the attacks in Paris and later in Brussels, aroused fear and uncertainty. The discomfort was compounded by the fact that most of the justice assistants (n=6) felt that they had been left to deal with everything on their own, with no real idea how to approach this new phenomenon.

[…] there was also a bit of fear, not just apprehension: “So, what do I do, how do I do it?” Even if we are a social workers We didn’t really know […]. There was no hand-holding, no support. What is completely different now is that we don’t feel alone. The discourse at that time was: “Just do it like all the other cases”, but it’s not like all the other cases! And since at that time there was the whole question of associating terrorism, extremism, Muslim… We told ourselves that we had no knowledge of Islam, no training on Islam. We wondered how to broach these questions, about religion. If we don’t bring up the question of religion, but the person comes up with it all the time, how are we going to work with that without totally rejecting it, because what if it’s the most important thing for the person, and he brings up the question of religion?

(Interview A3)

20At the time of the first assignments, no training was available to help the justice assistants find answers to their questions or acquire specific knowledge directly transposable into their practices. The justice assistants thus had to do their own training, taking the initiative to explore the topic through reading or by attending conferences. It was not professional training per se, rather events that gave the justice assistants the chance to exchange ideas with other professionals, in order “to get as much information as possible and understand the issue as well as possible” (Interview A1). Three of them even took the initiative to study for a certificate in relation with the subject. Other than a few local initiatives, it was not until late 2019 that the AGMJ organised a training cycle specific to terrorism, mandatory for all the justice assistants in charge of penal missions, an initiative that seemed to be motivated by the wish to “normalise” the phenomenon for the justice assistants.

21When the first case files arrived, both amalgamations and clichés predominated and there were more questions than answers: How to work with the question of religion if it is the most important thing for the defendant? How to reply to their arguments if we don’t know anything about it? The words of this justice assistant reflect the climate that prevailed in the maison de justice at the time:

We were supposed to warn our hierarchy if we noticed a change in the behaviour of our defendants and it was really in the email, it was: there you go, if they let their beard grow, if they don’t shake your hand etc. We had to notify the management. And that’s when we told ourselves: we’re not police officers. And then how can you tell if someone has become radicalised if he just wants to let his beard grow, well. Maybe he just wants to grow a beard, well, maybe that has nothing to do with it.

(Interview A5)

22Terrorism was associated with a whole series of symbols that maintained a climate of suspicion. A word, an object, a piece of clothing, a community became symbols of a certain status and sparked emotions and reactions (Cohen, 1972). The word “terrorism”, like that of “radicalisation”, explains Le Goaziou (2018, 7), “is an obstacle to reflection, both in virtue of its emotional charge and the way it captures reality, as if we now only need to say the word to know what it designates and to be immediately horrified by it” [our translation].

23Some also evoked the excitement they felt at the idea of handling “a case that was not an everyday one”, their curiosity about this new topic as well as their interest for what it provides in terms of reflection.

So, I’m adding air quotes, really two or three pairs of air quotes because it’s a topic that is super interesting. For me, to be completely honest, it drew me out of my justice assistant routine of drug addicts, alcoholics, violence. It really required an intellectual level of research, then… Yes, research into other ways to approach the interviews and thus intellectually, really, I think it's really great.

(Interview A6)

24One justice assistant even felt gratified when she was assigned her first terrorism case, a gesture that was interpreted as recognition of the quality of her work.

I won’t hide it from you that I consider it (at least here at X) as a sign of recognition from the management that assigned it to me. We get so little recognition from the management in our job, that it nevertheless did kind of make me happy.

(Interview A2)

25The arrival of the first case files thus provoked mixed feelings in the justice assistants, ranging from worry on one side to interest in the subject on the other, which for most of them (n=5) seemed to win out and motivated them to become involved more than before. Most of the fear and apprehension towards the terrorism cases faded in the face of the reality and thanks to the supervisory structure gradually put in place by the management of the maison de justice (see below). The involvement, availability and support they provided dissipated the initial isolation felt by some justice assistants (n=3) and helped them gain confidence.

4.2. The usual case assignment process in the maisons de justice and the challenge posed by the new cases

  • 11 In principle, there is no automatic assignment of new mandates on this basis; management evaluates (...)

26The maisons de justice are equipped with a computerised tool – the “resource planning” –that evaluates the workload of each justice assistant, taking into account the “average reference times” calculated on the basis of precise activities and steps in completing the mandate (Van Boven, 2009, 166). The maison de justice management makes use of this tool to assign new mandates to justice assistants whose resource planning indicates a low workload.11 It is also used for terrorism cases, except that in these cases, a justice assistant must be assigned immediately as soon as the mandate arrives at the maison de justice, unlike other cases where there may be a certain delay depending on the workload of the various assistants. According to Sabbe (2020, 158), the terrorism cases, like other types of mediatised offences are given priority because of the urgency and responsibility they involve.

  • 12 Internal memo of 2 May 2019 at the maison de justice concerned regarding the work processes specifi (...)

27The justice assistants state that they are not informed about the criteria followed by the management when they assign this type of case. They suggest various hypotheses to explain the assignment decision process: a question of personality (“maybe I say yes too readily”), lower workload, quality of the work (report writing), availability (“with my working half-time […]”) and experience. Criteria do exist however, and according to interviews with members of the maison de justice management, they do not vary much between the maison de justice that (since 2015) has been assigned roughly 80% of the “terro” cases and the other French-speaking maisons de justice. In the former, any justice assistant can be assigned, with the exception of new workers. Several reasons can explain this local policy: the need to absorb an incoming flow, the aim to ensure continuity of follow-ups in the face of staff turnover and the de-demonisation of the “terro” cases when they pass on to the daily tasks of each worker just like any other case. Criteria nevertheless guide the management’s choice at the time they decide to assign a case12: the fact of having followed the defendant during an earlier mandate, links between cases, workload, experience and short-term availability (for example, no upcoming annual holiday or family leave, not retiring soon). In the other maisons de justice, the assignment criteria do not seem to be formalised as explicitly, even though they are relatively similar as we saw in conversations with members of the local management. Nevertheless, two criteria seem to leave greater room for subjectivity in the local decision processes: evaluating the workload and the staff member’s degree of experience.

28Despite the existence of a workload assessment tool, the justice assistants have a heavy workload that seems to have only increased over the past years in virtue of the multiplication of procedures to be carried out, especially at the administrative level.

You don’t have a choice. When your whole team has a full workload but there are 15 cases piled up on your desk, all marked as urgent, what are you gonna do? You load them with more. And you’re perfectly aware of that. But I know that when I load them like that, if the files aren’t waiting on my desk… they’ll be waiting on theirs because they are not around. Because no one is obliged to do the impossible. They can’t find more time, they simply can’t… So the only thing I can do with them, is to look at their workload, see how they can prioritise things but…You just try going to your justice assistant and saying: “Here, I know I’m loading you up, let’s just see together how you can do even more.”

(Interview D3)

  • 13 Indeed, it is interesting to note that none of the maisons de justice studied seemed to have any en (...)

29It is no longer a question of managing the workload but the work overload because the maisons de justice do not have control over the flow of new mandates coming in, which depends on the criminal policies decided by the federal legislator (for example the follow-up of new sentences for community service, probation and electric monitoring which were entrusted to the maisons de justice) or even more, policies for criminal pursuit carried out by the public prosecutors offices which themselves are subject to media and political pressure. In this area, a local management officer explained that, unlike other forms of ideological engagement – which strangely enough are hardly ever seen in the maisons de justice,13 the policy of pursuits in the realm of jihadist-type terrorism or violent extremism linked to radical Islam has been broad and systematic when one examines more closely what is subsumed under the categories of offences for ‘terrorism’. For example, it was reported to us that someone was monitored for four years as an alternative to pre-trial detention for mailing a letter for someone who was in contact with a “Foreign Terrorist Fighter”.

30Although in theory any justice assistant can be appointed, statements by the local management nevertheless indicate that experience plays a role in the assignment of cases. This is a priori what the composition of our sample suggests: the “heavier” or “more sensitive” cases are entrusted to experienced workers who have particular professional aptitudes such as thoroughness, writing quality, a fine-tuned understanding of context or even the tendency to go beyond what is requested of them.

It wasn’t a question of experience but rather one of the quality of the work. […] It’s not a question of being good but of being careful and precise. Thus those who always meet the deadline, who are skilled at contextualising in the reports, those who are willing to visit the defendant at their home. Those who are dependable as well because it is not just a question of being a really great justice assistant. It also takes… You have to be able, have to want to handle this type of case because it can place you under such pressure that you break down and then we participate in the psycho-social burden of the justice assistant.

(Interview D3)

31Nonetheless, sometimes the management also assigns this work to justice assistants with these professional skills even though they do not have much seniority because, according to a manager, they would be more open to new work instructions and less reticent towards new things because they had not gone through all the transformations of the profession.

5. Adaptations of the work practices of the justice assistants in the “terro” cases

32“Proceed the same way you do with your other cases!”: this seemed to be the order that guided the justice assistants’ first steps in the “terro” case files. In other words “business as usual”, it is a social phenomenon like any other (Haugstvedt, 2019). The justice assistants were thus supposed to apply for these files the five founding principles – the emancipatory approach, fostering responsibility, non-normativity, non-substitution and limitation of any harm that may result from the penal intervention (see above). However, using ordinary procedures to cases considered as unusual – even if only symbolically – quickly ran up against some limitations. These were cases that had to be managed in priority, which were the subject of (over)mediatisation and especially, they involved specific administrative and verification steps: sending a copy of the report to a member of management responsible for reviewing it (something not normally done for other cases, if not on individual initiative), individual debriefing interview with the hierarchy after submitting the report, immediate information to the hierarchy of any change in the person’s administrative situation (which entails verification steps such as consulting the national register, police record of co-residents, frequent contacts with the police, etc.), requesting an updated threat analysis sheet from the Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis (CUTA) in order to use it in interviews, reconvening the defendants within ten days in case an interview is missed, redistributing the case while the justice assistant responsible for the case is absent, and so on.

33The fact that all these steps must be taken regularly, as well as the priority nature of the case, implies a reorganisation of work time which inevitably impacts the workload of the referral justice assistant and intensifies the pressure, a pressure so palpable that it is also felt by justice assistants not involved in this type of case (and who consequently try to avoid being assigned one). According to Sabbe (2020, 146), the justice assistants consider these cases as particularly demanding because they require constant attention to what at first glance may seem to be mere details.

34In order to analyse the upheaval to the daily jobs of the justice assistants responsible for social-judiciary handling of the “terro” cases in French-speaking Belgium, we will discuss at length four routine tasks that take on special significance in this context: the interview, the verification of the conditional device, the confidentiality of the communication and the reporting. We will then analyse one additional task that is only required for “terro” cases: the debriefing with the management. Lastly we propose an appendix on the particular difficulties solely encountered in cases dealing with the problem of violent extremism.

5.1. The interview

35Interviews between the justice assistants and their clients are structured by work instructions that are specific to the intervention sectors (community service or probation for example). The number and location of interviews are regulated, information check-lists are used when communicating with the defendants, and so on (Jonckheere, 2013b). All the justice assistants stress the importance they place in clarifying the framework for the guidance and how it will be conducted during the first interview with the defendant. This mainly consists in learning about the judiciary context and explaining the role of the justice assistant, the home visits, the frequency of the interviews, the contacts with the police, etc. Furthermore, all the assistants agree that a good relationship with the defendant allows them to obtain a lot of information through discussions, thanks to the (professional) trust that is built up during the interviews. This means being transparent and reminding the person that anything they say can be found in the reports that the justice assistant must regularly prepare for the mandating authority.

  • 14 This is an assessment tool specially designed to assess risks linked to terrorism and violent extre (...)

36The justice assistant’s guidance-monitoring mission calls for juggling the axiological tension between these two dimensions that have always been part of their job (Mary, 2009, 70; Sabbe, 2020, 237); it also calls for avoiding recidivism at the same time as fostering social inclusion. The justice assistants are thus ask the defendants to develop an understanding of their own functioning based on the relation between their own behaviour and the environment, their own values, their own view of the world and their own needs. To do so, the justice assistants are encouraged to refrain from self-censorship and to ‘dare to ask questions’ to the defendants about things often specifically related to the topic and this, in order to nurture discussions about various dimensions liable to have an impact on their life trajectory (family background, professional career, network of relations, administrative situation) and thereby identify the resources, needs, obstacles and limits to the reinsertion. Although the privileged approach is still evaluative in several aspects, it is interesting to point out that it is not radically different from that based on standardised and specific assessment tools such as VERA-2R; an actuarial tools that the AGMJ stopped using.14 One manager interviewed points out that it is not up to the justice assistants to look for the truth or to assess the defendants’ dangerousness but rather to establish a dialogue, using all available means, and to accompany them in the experience of their conditional release.

Once again, quite humbly, in other words the question of truth has no place, the question of whether or not there’s a risk has no place. We are not in measure to define whether [the defendant] is leading us on or not. That’s his responsibility. Our responsibility, our added value is essentially to guide him, you might say, towards life in society. If he has problems, then to help him find the ability to live in society.

(Interview D1)

37Beyond this humanist vision promoted by the literature (Broomfield, 2018; Lynch, 2017; Stanley et al., 2018), which seems to give social work a high priority in terms of socio-judicial support, it is nevertheless colonised by the security imperative (Michon, 2020). Three justice assistants thus admitted that their hierarchy had urged to ask certain more precise questions or to broach certain specific facets of the defendant’s life.

38Some questions suggested by the management were perceived as more delicate than others, such as those aiming to question the ideology or religious aspects related to the offence.

[…] given that it […] touches on what a person holds private […] who are we to ask this type of question? What’s more, we know nothing about their religion or anything else. We asked questions without even knowing and people were surprised because there were some who had had guidance, who had already been found guilty and had a normal guidance and then when they were found guilty of this type of offence, they were questioned, saying: “the dynamics of the interviews have completely changed”. Some of them understood… “why are you asking me that?”. And then we lay out all our cards “that comes from the management, we have to ask these questions because…”

(Interview A5)

39According to most justice assistants (n=6), questioning ideology, or even religiosity, would be specific to these cases. These questions are all the more difficult to ask for justice assistants, since they are generally poorly equipped and lack the benchmarks or knowledge to guide the questioning usefully. Their ignorance of religious norms can cause them to mistakenly associate what falls under religious orthodoxy with radicalisation and thereby induce biases in interpretation. The positions are very contrasting, some justice assistants are very uncomfortable with these questions, which they perceive as inopportune and intrusive on people’s privacy (n=3), while others (n=4) regard them as legitimate, even if they recognise that the position is not necessarily easy to maintain.

I really try to make a difference. I say that I completely respect the fact that they are believers, that they are practicing, that they go to the mosque, that at home it happens just as they describe it to me, starting from when they stop condoning attacks or inciting others to move to places that are at war or to commit violence themselves. And we really distinguish between belief and violence.

(Interview A1)

40What is questioned is the relationship between violence (proscribed and condemned by law) – when this aspect is present – and beliefs. Whether or not they are actually violent, the facts justify investigating the defendant in relation to his beliefs and how they are reflected in his daily life, according to the management. As a member of the management explains, the justice assistant is there to guide and contextualise the defendant’s position. It is not up to her to be a critic, but to refer to the mandating authority, which must stake out its position.

41It is therefore a question of distinguishing belief from behaviour. One justice assistant says that the limit would be crossed when one supports attacks, incites someone to leave for a war zone or commits acts of violence himself. This testifies to the considerable place of subjectivity in the assessment of this sensitive issue and raises the question of how to define violence in this context: What is violent, for whom, and what is not? And the limit between what we think and say, even subversively, and transgressive behaviour: How do you know in fine if someone is about to take action? Two justice assistants thus raise the risk of “being drawn” by ignorance into legitimising or justifying acts and behaviours by the belief system to which the defendant adheres.

42Reflecting on the freedom she enjoys in conducting her interviews, a justice assistant wonders if this might not be illusory, insofar as she already meets the requirements of her management.

43The penetration of security concerns into the professional daily life of justice assistants does not seem to prevent reflexivity, but “is confined to the level of discourse and struggles to find a place in practice” [our translation] (Michon, 2020, 54).

  • 15 As part of the alternatives to pre-trial detention, the first intervention mandate is given for a m (...)

44The interviews are therefore often longer because the justice assistants are invited to go further in the exchanges with the defendants than in other cases. These moments of interaction are also emotionally and psychologically demanding. Their frequency varies according to the missions and organisational standards specific to each maison de justice. In general, the regularity of the interviews is in most cases (n=6) more sustained than in “classic” cases. On average, the frequency is one interview per month for probation mandates and one interview every fortnight/three weeks for mandates as an alternative to pre-trial detention15. This can be even more intense at the start of the mandate as the following statement illustrates:

At the start of the guidance period, I investigate a “terro” case every week or every 15 days […]. My “terro” cases in alternatives to pre-trial detention take place every 15 days from beginning to end. Unlike the other cases here at X., which are very rarely extended, “terro” cases are systematically extended until the end of the examination period.

(Interview A6)

45Depending on the maison de justice, the justice assistant can decide to space out the frequency of the meetings because the follow-up is going smoothly. She may do this on her own initiative, in consultation with her superiors or even with the authorisation of the mandating authority. In other maisons de justice, the frequency of the interviews does not change until the end of the mandate. The intensity with which the interviews follow one another certainly increases the workload but also tends to make them less important (as they are organised for formality’s sake), which can have counterproductive effects for the defendant because of the burden of the control under which he is submitted (discouragement, exhaustion, uncertainty, etc.).

5.2. Verification of the conditional device

46The judicial control of people who are left free or released on probation is carried out on the basis of general or specific conditions imposed on them. These controls can be of different types: bans (on visits, for example), or conditions of occupation, therapeutic care, compensation and so on (see Table II). The general trend in recent years has been for conditional device to become more cumbersome, particularly implying an increase in the number of conditions imposed. The prime tool for justice assistants to verify compliance with the conditional devices is the interview, although it is also up to the defendant to propose methods of verification when a condition (training, medical follow-up) is imposed and the verification procedures undertaken by the justice assistant may be detrimental to him. Faced with a less cooperative or even bellicose defendant, the justice assistant will employ different strategies to verify compliance with the conditions (for example, by taking a low, empathetic or even naive position). A justice assistant explains that she does not hesitate to use humour to confront the defendant with his contradictions from one interview to another “it works better than if I took it head-on” (Interview A6). The repeated and multiple contradictions can therefore be richly informative and revealing. The justice assistant will therefore be attentive to the consistency of the statement from one interview to another, to the sudden changes of version, to the standardisation of the discourse (“Is this manipulation?”; “Is this a prepared speech?”), etc.

47The formulation of the conditions will have a powerful impact on how the justice assistant will be able to work. These should be clear. There are conditions of obligation and prohibition that can be general or specific to the theme. Table II is intended above all to be indicative, so it is neither exhaustive nor necessarily restricted to the title of the conditions listed.

Table II. Examples of general or specific conditions of obligation or prohibition for the “terro” theme

General conditions

Specific conditions for the “terro” theme





Do not commit an offence

Report to any summons issued by the maison de justice

Refrain from administering, managing or contributing to any website or any personal or group profile on social networks and refrain from consulting any website or webpage with radical Islamist or jihadist content

Submit to psychological and/or religious guidance inhibiting Islamist or jihadist radicalism by a practitioner or a centre chosen in consultation with the probation assistant for at least two years, but as long as the latter deems necessary

Do not have contact with the co-defendants

Actively seek employment

Do not associate with people or places claiming to be from radical Islamist or jihadist circles

Do not leave Belgian soil without the agreement of the authorities

Report any change of address or residence

Do not attend certain mosques

48Regardless of the defendant’s wishes, many conditions are difficult – if not impossible – to comply with, due to their wording or the defendant’s administrative situation. This incompatibility between the legal logic of the mandating authorities and the systemic logic underlying the intervention of justice assistants is not specific to “terro” mandates. However, in this case, it further increases their workload when it comes to making them operational. How can a defendant respect a ban on travelling to Brussels when the hearings before the investigating courts for another case in which the defendant is charged are taking place there? To which authority are we referring when we prohibit a defendant from leaving Belgian soil without the agreement of “the authorities”? What does “psychological and/or religious guidance inhibiting radicalism” mean? How can a defendant find a job when he is staying in the country illegally or when his criminal record mentions conviction for terrorism? How can a defendant not have contact with co-defendants when one of them is his father or child? These and many other examples illustrate the translation difficulties faced by justice assistants.

49During the first interview, the justice assistant will try to identify how the defendant understands the conditional device (is his understanding of the system in some way on the “same wavelength” as the mandating authority?) and reports on this in her management report, just as she specifies how the device will be verified. If there are any doubts or questions, and after having consulted with her superiors, the justice assistant may ask the mandating authority or the one to whom she must report to clarify or interpret the problematic condition(s) in the spirit of the original mandate. However, the authorities are not always necessarily clear in their interpretation of the conditions imposed or they do not always agree to take a position, which again is not specific to “terro” cases.

[A defendant] had made a proposal regarding the sites she consulted, the sermons she could see on YouTube and the imams she could follow to see if it was acceptable or not. Here, we never had an answer on this point from the mandating authority, for example.

(Interview A7)

50The control of other conditions (the so-called negative conditions such as the ban on seeing co-defendants, for example) is the responsibility of the police services because the justice assistant simply does not have the means (for example, a ban on leaving home between 10 pm and 6 am). Finally, there are conditions that cannot be fully met for lack of a service offer (obligation to be monitored by a multidisciplinary team). The justice assistant must also work on this situation with the person concerned and refer it to the authorities.

51After the attacks of 22 March 2016 in Brussels, several justice assistants (n=3) noticed a change in the number and wording of the conditions compared to previous cases. This would have become denser and more specific in relation to the subject.

For him, indeed... now, for him, in terms of timing, it’s a warrant after 22 March, and so as much as the first two, I only have a “job search” device. That was before 22 March, so they had both gone to Turkey with the plan to go to Syria but were forcibly repatriated by the family before. Although he did not take action, it was after 22 March, so that’s 15 months of pre-trial detention, five years of suspension on the 15 months which exceed pre-trial detention and around 10 conditions, including a lot of negative conditions related to the [Internet] and the administration of certain sites, visiting certain sites. So here we have a system that is really, really...

(Interview A6)

52It goes without saying that the process of reintegrating defendants is far from obvious and remains a challenge given the conditional device in which they can be caught. In addition to the obligation to appear for interviews, it is not uncommon for the defendant to also have to report to the police (twice per month), to conduct psychotherapeutic follow-up (twice per month), to accept unannounced checks by the police, etc. Consequently, the conditional device becomes “something cumbersome and restrictive” (Interview A3). This development is sometimes due to the attitude of lawyers who do not hesitate to propose imposing many conditions on their clients to obtain a favourable decision from the magistrates, in anticipation of presupposed security expectations.

  • 16 Circular (COL 10/2018) of 28 June 2018 of the Professional Association of Public Prosecutors, relat (...)

53A member of the management recalls that the justice assistant “is always there to support and contextualise. So [she] tries to guide as best as possible, but the defendant is responsible and is the only actor ultimately active in respecting his conditional system” (Interview D3). However, like the Professional Association of Public Prosecutors16, she recommends a return to more general conditional provisions.

54In short, the defendant must “agree with the penal measure, become responsible for its smooth implementation, manage his risk of recidivism and be an actor in his own reintegration” [our translation] (Mary, 2006, 356-357). The justice assistant has an obligation of means to help him achieve the objectives set, and not an obligation of results.

5.3. Strict confidentiality of communication

  • 17 The Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis (CUTA) falls under the joint authority of the Ministers o (...)
  • 18 Working primarily on monitoring specific situations and individual requests, the Centre is located (...)
  • 19 The Belgian civil intelligence service, whose skills and missions are oriented towards the interior (...)

55The management of “terro” cases has led to the development of new working relationships with services such as the CUTA17, the Centre for Assistance and Support for Anyone Concerned by Radicalism and Violent Extremism (CAPREV)18 and State Security19, as well as to the increase of contacts with the “classic” partners of the maisons de justice (police, prosecution, mandating authority).

  • 20 Common circular (COL 11/2013) of 7 June 2013 of the Minister of Justice, the Minister of the Interi (...)
  • 21 So-called “verification” directive revised on 12 December 2016, which aims to clarify the “help-con (...)
  • 22 Memorandum n° 2019/01 of the general administration of maisons de justice of 5 March 2019.
  • 23 For an overview of the organisation chart, see Administration générale des maisons de justice, Rapp (...)
  • 24 Memorandum n° 2019/01 of the general administration of maisons de justice of 5 March 2019.

56The arrival on the scene of these new partners inevitably raised the issue of information sharing. It should be remembered here that justice assistants come from the social work sector, even though their activity is conducted under judicial mandate. It is the ethic of the relationship that has forged their professional identity and makes them at least cautious in sharing information. Even if they are structurally organised today, their relations with the police services are still largely dependent on interpersonal relations (Jonckheere, Maes, 2017, 161). The advent of “terro” cases has therefore raised a number of questions such as the type of information that can be relayed to external services, their methods of transmission, the use of received information by the partners in the context of interviews with defendants, etc. The standards in force (such as the “infoflux” circular20 and the “verification” directive21) did not provide sufficiently precise answers to these questions. Partnership protocols with several external services have since been signed and a memorandum formalises the terms and conditions for exchanging information for “terro” cases, whether internally or externally22. Far from being ignored or remaining unquestioned, the communication and sharing of information in the context of these files is highly formalised. This concern for formalisation reinforces a process already highlighted in the past, which helps strengthen the identity of the maisons de justice with regard to external services, while also reproducing this hierarchical line that separates the justice assistant from them (Jonckheere, Kaminski, 2013, 1159). Indeed, communication is organised in the form of ascending and descending processes within which a specific service in the AGMJ, the General Service of the Maisons de Justice (SGMJ), is tasked with facilitating this communication between the various services of the AGMJ, the maisons de justice and the external services, in both directions. In charge of supervising and coordinating the local maisons de justice to carry out their missions23, it is also responsible for updating the list of “persons involved in acts of terrorism or who are involved in a case of violent extremism and who are monitored by a maison de justice and/or the electronic surveillance centre” on the basis of the information conveyed to it by the latter and the external services (Liste – Extrem)24. Internally, the communication channels in the AGMJ are hierarchical and the information that must reach the external service (via the SGMJ) or the mandating authority – or, conversely, that must be relayed to a justice assistant from the latter – must in principle always go through the local management beforehand.

57Faced with the rapid change of work instructions, however, it seems that it can be difficult for justice assistants to follow and adapt. Thus, it emerges from the interviews that justice assistants do not always seem to be fully informed of recent developments or even necessarily all have good knowledge of the regulatory texts in force in this area:

There are many things to do, but this memo… I don’t know it by heart yet and I haven’t fully implemented it yet, but yes, as I said, you have to notify of any change in the situation and send reports. There may be other things that I have not yet put into practice or that I forget and perhaps I should read this memo again, but it is still a burden imposed on us in these cases.

(Interview A5)

58In addition, the development of I+Belgium, the platform for sharing information between the various police services (federal and local) and judicial authorities (prosecution, sentence enforcement court, etc.) has contributed to the streamlining of information exchanges and simplification of certain verification procedures. The emergence of these new tools, such as the formalisation of communication, does not prevent informal modes of communication internally (see the debriefing interviews with the management below) or with the police services. According to a justice assistant, good partnerships between both institutions can be explained by the fact that since the attacks in Brussels, everyone considers themselves in the same boat. This increasingly intense and specific partnership in the context of “terro” cases may have even spread by extending to the other cases. Without leading to a confusion of roles (“polibation officer”), it above all highlights the importance and need for informal contact, or even human contact in general, for the proper functioning of the criminal justice administration system because, she adds, “it makes it easier, it greases the wheels” (Interview A6).

5.4. Reporting

59Reporting is an action consubstantial with the activity of justice assistants. In the context of alternatives to pre-trial detention, for example, three types of reports are provided for by the work instructions: a management report within the month of designation, a communication report in the event of difficulties encountered during guidance and a progress report 15 days before the end of the measure. There is theoretically no difference between “terro” cases and the others in terms of the frequency and types of reports to be submitted. However, sometimes justice assistants submit reports more frequently, for example after each interview, which is left to their discretion.

60In addition, the justice assistant is required to follow a computer-generated report outline that is identical in all cases. The structure is roughly organised into three main parts: current context, developments since the previous report and contextualisation of the implementation of the conditional device.

61The report plays roles other than transmitting information to the authorities and serving as a situational analysis for the justice assistant. As a member of the management explains, it is also a guidance tool with a view to social reintegration, through which the justice assistant documents the various interactional dynamics relating to each of the prescribed conditions.

62The difference with the other cases would mainly be found in the verification procedures prior to drafting the report. Indeed, the more severe the conditional device, the longer it takes to write the report “because before doing something, you still have to make sure of many things” (Interview A3), such as consulting I+ Belgium, contacting the local police by telephone because “it also allows you to keep in touch with the policeman and to take stock of the things to be careful about” (Interview A7), asking the CUTA for an update of the threat assessment, verifying a possible change of residence by consulting the national registry, debriefing the previous report with one’s own hierarchy, etc.

63While all justice assistants say that they approach all their files with the same rigour, most (n=5) of them admit that writing a report for a “terro” case requires more investment and time, sometimes at the expense of their other cases. However, two other justice assistants do not feel like they devote more time to “terro” cases. According to them, the time spent depends on the complexity (or delicacy) of the case rather than media or hierarchical pressure (Interviews A3 and A4).

64However, knowing that these are sensitive cases for which they could more easily be held to account makes most justice assistants (n=6) more vigilant and attentive to prioritising information they receive for these cases. Writing a report for this type of case may also require more time, because the justice assistant will also be encouraged by her superiors to oversee the wording (use of the conditional, rigorous differentiation between concrete and subjective elements, concern for accuracy, etc.) and to be exhaustive in her remarks (because “I should not be caught out” (Interview A2). This professionalised writing coupled with a concern for exhaustiveness reflects “an increase in the professional expertise of the justice assistants body and the development of an immune logic that weighs on the organisation and on each of its members” [our translation] (Jonckheere, Kaminski, 2013, 1161).

65Affected by security imperatives and subject to the hierarchical prescriptions of having to develop “a more open, questioning and interested social (and oral) relationship” with the defendant [our translation] (Jonckheere, Kaminski, 2013, 1161), regarding the different aspects likely to affect the course of his life, to the point of seeming intrusive, justice assistants not only report on everything that the defendant says, but also take care to contextualise his situation as much as possible.

  • 25 Ibid.

66The pressure can be compounded by knowing that they have been read, since, in addition to the mandating authority to whom the original report is generally reserved, the justice assistants must now send a copy of their report to the hierarchy, to the concerned local prosecutor’s office and to the office of the federal prosecutor in charge of terrorism cases. In certain cases, the case may also be transferred to the intelligence and security services. Indeed, the AGMJ can communicate to State Security information that falls under its missions in accordance with Article 14 of the Organic Law of 30 November 1998 on the intelligence and security services25.

5.5. Debriefing with the management

67A major specificity of the socio-legal support for “terro” cases lies in the debriefing interview between the justice assistant and her management. This can be organised at the request of the justice assistant (n=3), systematically scheduled after sending each report (n=2) or even take place on an ad hoc basis at the management’s request (n=2).

68On this occasion, the management may ask the justice assistant to take additional specific steps or to look deeper into certain aspects of the case. The remarks made during this interview must be worked on for the next interview and therefore appear in the following report (Interview A2). In some cases, the justice assistants (n=2) resist or even refuse because they believe that these steps go beyond their skill set and the purpose of the mandate (for example, to conduct an interview with a cohabitant). The justice assistant sometimes feels like she does not have the skills or the knowledge to carry out such approaches.

69The debriefing can be a bad experience for the justice assistant, particularly when the interview is organised on an ad hoc basis by the management. She views it as a way to control her work (which she may fear is poorly executed) or the translation of injunctions coming from another level of power than that of the maisons de justice. The justice assistant may therefore feel compelled to provide intelligence information. In some cases, this can jeopardise the guidance (especially when the defendant respects the conditional device) insofar as the implementation of these requirements differs from the framework and the explanations given by the justice assistant at the start of the mandate. These debriefing interviews are also sometimes perceived as way for those in the management to protect themselves professionally.

70When the interview is structurally scheduled (after each report is sent) or organised at the request of the justice assistant, this perception is toned down, even if some justice assistants (n=2) still see it, as a means of control over their work. However, the justice assistants then perceive these meetings more as a sign of support from their management, a sharing of responsibilities, or even as an opportunity to be reassured about the quality of their work. Disagreements are possible but, according to most justice assistants (n=5), criticism is intended to be constructive: “we discuss, and after that they don’t impose anything. They ask me to be careful” (Interview A6). Some (n=4) also use the system to protect themselves professionally.

71These interviews are therefore a guarantee for the justice assistant to have done things in agreement with her management, a form of shared responsibility for the guidance and monitoring work. It is a position that echoes that of members of the management who perceive these interviews more as a matter of coaching than of control or evaluation.

72Interviews are also an opportunity to ask the management to find out how to formulate certain elements and form an opinion. These interviews are therefore seen as useful by most justice assistants (n=5) in the sense that they allow them to step back and take another look at the case, which lessens their fear of committing a professional error or missing something.

73Several justice assistants (n=4) underline and appreciate the availability as well as the atypical responsiveness of their management in these cases: “the ‘terros’ are really the new priority” (Interview A2).

5.6. The specific difficulties related to cases involving the issue of violent extremism

74The justice assistants believe that it is much more difficult to manage the cases reported to them as involved in a case of violent extremism than the “official” terrorism cases, meaning those that have been legally classified as such, with reference to the Penal Code.

75This causes a lot of discomfort, firstly because it contravenes a fundamental ethical principle of their intervention, namely transparency. Indeed, in this case, the justice assistant cannot share certain information with the defendant, even if it only relates to his status, namely that of a person suspected of being involved in a case of violent extremism, because he is sometimes unaware of how he has been classified.

76Secondly, the justice assistant finds herself at odds between the sensitive information available to her and the defendant’s discourse. It is difficult for her to reconcile these two aspects of the information at her disposal and to either refrain from asking certain questions so as not to arouse suspicion, and thereby possibly compromise the current investigation or examination, or on the contrary, take this risk in order to grasp the context of her intervention and appropriately guide the socio-judicial follow-up. Moreover, how can she justify to the defendant the increase in the frequency of interviews recommended in these situations by the work instructions?

77Thirdly, it can complicate professional relationships with certain partners. Sometimes the local police department does not possess the same information as the justice assistant. This asymmetry in the level of information makes the professional relationship delicate and calls for caution during the verification process because the justice assistant does not know what her interlocutor knows.

78Fourthly, it can skew the relationship with the defendant, mainly when it comes to the first mandate concerning him, because of the (negative) representations that can be made about him.

79Fifthly, by becoming the custodian of this sensitive information, the pressure increases on the justice assistant and makes her more responsible.

80Sixthly, the situation also raises questions for the management of the case as such: What is the status of this information? Should it be attached to the case or not? Is it necessary to specify the source of this information?

81We glimpse here what could be a fundamental evolution in social work in justice: whereas traditionally, it is the defendant who is at the centre of the relationship, a shift seems to be taking place towards a centrality of information as the driving force of action for justice assistants. If in the other cases, the justice assistant has the choice of whether or not to seek information to contextualise her intervention, for example by going to consult the case of a defendant released under conditions before meeting him, in the cases studied here, the justice assistant is immediately informed of elements of contextualisation going beyond the information strictly related to the mandate. Information management has become a crucial issue within maisons de justice, just as it has long been in police forces.

82Justice assistants often feel helpless and come to wonder if it is ultimately appropriate for them to be informed because they do not clearly understand the expectations of the authorities informing them. Is this information passed on for its importance in terms of providing guidance or for the specific objectives of the notifying authority? While there may be added value for the security of the justice assistant, particularly in the context of home visits which they in principle carry out alone, this state of vigilance can also be useful for the authorities. Such information, however, changes the justice assistant’s interpretive framework in the approach to her guidance and reinforces the construction of an initial static representation of the defendant’s situation, fixed in the description that the authorities make of it, which is the opposite of the systemic approach favoured in the maison de justice, which draws on the relationship with the defendant to build a global image, centred more on the person than on his actions, in order to understand what animates him and makes him evolve, from a dynamic perspective (Jonckheere, 2013a, 175-177).

  • 26 According to Jonckheere and Kaminski (2013, 1163), this metaphor designates “the professional posit (...)

83If we are not careful, justice assistants risk being swept away only by the argument of security, the sole objective of which is to avoid an act of terrorism, whereas for these social work professionals, caught up in the “relational triangle” that characterises their position26, their interventions have multiple objectives that are intertwined and difficult to reconcile: maintaining defendants’ trust, preventing an attack from being committed, preventing the ethical framework from being compromised by collaborating with the intelligence and security services or even avoiding producing what we are trying to prevent by reinforcing feelings of exclusion (Michon, 2020, 50-51).

84This delicate management of information in cases of violent extremism therefore forces justice assistants and members of the management to constantly reflect on the implementation of new strategies to carry out their missions.

6. Conclusion

85All judicial actors are confronted with a major professional risk, that of having to confirm that a defendant takes action following one of their decisions (release, for example) or despite the control that they are responsible for ensuring. Justice assistants are not immune to this risk and its corollaries in terms of questioning, media coverage and trauma. This is undoubtedly also one of the reasons why the activity is heavily framed by the maison de justice. Beyond the standardisation of work and the calling to efficiently manage flows, the work instructions also have an “umbrella” function allowing the AGMJ, the local management and ultimately the justice assistants to justify themselves if problems arise, by demonstrating that the work instructions have been properly applied.

86The massive influx of “terro” cases in the maisons de justice has therefore logically led to the enactment and generalisation of specific professional rules intended to further structure the intervention of justice assistants in this area, making these cases highly symbolic and not quite like the others.

87In addition to the fact that this is the only subject for which a specific training cycle is imposed on all justice assistants in charge of criminal missions, these are cases that must be managed as a matter of priority, which are (excessively) covered by the media and which above all involve specific administrative and verification procedures: sending a copy of the report to the responsible member of the management for proofreading, immediately informing the hierarchy of any change in the person’s administrative situation, requesting an updated threat analysis sheet from CUTA to work on in an interview, etc.

88The professional practice of justice assistants, particularly in their relationship with defendants, is also affected by the peculiarities required by following up on these cases. For example, it is not easy to intrude on someone’s privacy, to question their convictions or to examine the relationship between their ideas and their behaviour. Moreover, the conditions of prohibition and obligation specific to the “terro” theme that have been set are partly difficult or even impossible to respect. The formulation of some of them is such that their meaning remains cryptic for the mandating authorities themselves. Still others cannot be verified due to a lack of resources. Both the cumbersomeness and the ever more restrictive nature of these conditional devices are not specific to “terro” cases. In fact, this is a basic trend mainly driven by the judicial authorities’ concern for guarding against the slightest risk and is sometimes pursued by lawyers who try to get a favourable decision for their client by suggesting a set of conditions (Jonckheere, Maes, 2017, 155).

89We are therefore witnessing the strengthening of an old trend, that of the growing significance of the penal imprint on defendants released or left free, not only via a strengthening of the conditional devices – which goes against the notion of moderation in criminal law that is furthermore promoted (Snacken, 2012) –, but also via an increase in organisational rules linked to justice assistants’ activity.

90The introduction of a systematic debriefing between the justice assistant and her management in “terro” cases is certainly one of these organisational innovations; this is a system that is not mandatory for other cases. During these sessions, the management can formulate specific requests that can be assessed in various ways by the justice assistants, according to the methods of implementation of these meetings. When the interview is organised on an ad hoc basis by the management, requests are viewed negatively as exceeding their function, reflecting improper influence, seeking to control their work or allowing members of the management to protect themselves professionally. In these cases, the setting up of the system has as a corollary, a strengthening of the local management’s power of intervention on the socio-judicial follow-up. It is probably still too early to analyse the effects on the reality of the work, but we can already observe that this strengthened control by the local management is likely to reduce social workers’ room for manoeuvre. When the interview is structurally scheduled (after sending each report) or organised at the request of the justice assistant, the meeting is viewed more positively as a mark of support, a way of reassuring oneself in one’s work or taking a step back, a special moment to get advice and an opportunity to share responsibilities.

91The question arises as to whether these specific developments observed in the socio-judicial follow-up of “terro” cases in maisons de justice will spread to influence other types of cases, leading the social workers of the justice system to build new balances. The intermediary position to which their professional positioning summons them by placing them at an equal distance from the judicial authorities and the defendants is in fact likely to evolve, bringing them closer to these authorities, which would reinforce an older trend that was observed in the course of computerising their activities. The delicate position (specific to social work in the justice system) between help and control could also be affected. However, aware of the security imperative’s encroachment on their professional daily life, the justice assistants do not seem to have given up on their work ethic or their reflexivity. Far from falling prey to what the literature calls an “ethics of silence”, justice assistants seem to be more driven by respect for hierarchy and work instructions combined with a reasoned exploitation of the room for manoeuvre available in order to grapple with the ethical dilemmas faced by the management of these cases (un)like any other.

92At all levels (justice assistants, local management, central administration), there are questions about the professional identity of workers in maisons de justice, which does not prevent them from ensuring consistency in interventions at the same time. This balance seems possible to us because substantial and permanent work has always been done on the identity of these social workers who have had to face the mistrust of other judicial actors since their creation (Mary, 2009), which has undoubtedly created a “prudent distrust” on their part in return and resistance against any attempt to engage in arguments that are foreign to them. The sharing of information is thereby questioned and formalised in line with the issues underlying it, even if certain informal exchanges are still tolerated.

93Finally, we also detect a new increase in the administrative tasks devolved to justice assistants that could further narrow the social dimension of their work that was furthermore already observed while being computerised. These trends are not inevitable, but they require a certain level of attention considering the complexity of the institutional and professional position of social work in the justice system.

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1 Presentation of the General Administration of the French-speaking maisons de justice (AGMJ) on the site (consulted 18 March 2020).

2 Memorandum n° 2019/01 of the General Administration of the French-speaking maisons de justice of 5 March 2019 regarding information flow in the context of cases of terrorism or those concerning a problem of violent extremism.

3 Nevertheless, the joint circular of 18 February 2019 for a global approach to violent radicalism, extremism and terrorism, signed by the Federal State and the country’s three Communities (French-speaking, Flemish and German-speaking) stipulates that the ‘Communities undertake to make available in the prisons a sufficient and specialised offer to enable a disengagement process’ [own translation]. The Communities’ competent services (in this case the maisons de justice) are thus mandated in the context in which the justice assistants can meet the detainees in order to prepare their reintegration plan and facilitate the transition between inside and outside prison. Even though it has entered into effect, at the time of writing, this circular is not yet fully implemented throughout the territory even if some maisons de justice are already adopting this practice depending on the situation.

4 For example, see the law of 20 July 1990 on pre-trial detention or articles 37 quinquies and following of the Penal Code on Organisation of Community Service.

5 Text on the site: (consulted 30 November 2020).

6 On this subject, see Itzhaky, York (2005); Sweifach et al. (2010).

7 The notion of violent extremism is an institutional category not defined explicitly by the General Administration of the Maisons de Justice (AGMJ) but, as can be seen from the documents shared with us, it is likely inferred from the Guidelines for Prison and Probation Services Regarding Radicalisation and Violent Extremism (PC-CP 2016). The notion of violent extremism is defined as behaviour that consists in “promoting, supporting or committing acts which may lead to terrorism and which are aimed at defending an ideology advocating racial, national, ethnic or religious supremacy”.

8 With the authorization of the AGMJ directors we contacted all the local French-speaking units (n=5) in charge of “terro” cases. They invited us to present the research project to the justice assistants who provide guidance for these defendants in order to elicit their collaboration. At the end of our presentation, four members of the management as well as two justice assistants accepted our request and an appointment was set with each one for an interview. Five other justice assistants contacted us later on their own initiative to participate in the research project.

9 See the site: (consulted 2 September 2020).

10 As our sample of justice assistants consisted exclusively of women, we will use she/her for the discussion of the material collected. The use of they/them is justified when the remarks concern justice assistants in general.

11 In principle, there is no automatic assignment of new mandates on this basis; management evaluates each situation, especially using the software tool.

12 Internal memo of 2 May 2019 at the maison de justice concerned regarding the work processes specific to mandates that involve violent radicalization.

13 Indeed, it is interesting to note that none of the maisons de justice studied seemed to have any enquiry mandate open for other forms of ideological engagement, i.e. where the wording of the mandate clearly showed an explicit ideological element linked to the facts.

14 This is an assessment tool specially designed to assess risks linked to terrorism and violent extremism. See the site:

15 As part of the alternatives to pre-trial detention, the first intervention mandate is given for a maximum of three months, renewable. During this period, the defendant is seen every month, in principle. However, this may vary from one maison de justice to another because of its organisation or the influx of cases due to greater use than elsewhere of conditional release pending trial. This sometimes produces waiting lists that in some cases prevent the case from being processed until the month preceding the end of the mandate. This is therefore sometimes automatically renewed to allow the examining magistrate to have a minimum of guarantees in relation to the measure granted, which, in fine, influences the duration of the follow-ups. This situation is in no way specific to terrorism cases. (Jonckheere, Maes, 2017, 158).

16 Circular (COL 10/2018) of 28 June 2018 of the Professional Association of Public Prosecutors, relating to the conditions that may be imposed on people prosecuted or convicted for acts of terrorism or engaged in violent extremism.

17 The Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis (CUTA) falls under the joint authority of the Ministers of Justice and the Interior and is particularly responsible for assessing threats likely to undermine internal security and the security of the Belgian state (see the Law of 10 July 2006 relating to threat analysis).

18 Working primarily on monitoring specific situations and individual requests, the Centre is located within the AGMJ (Franssen et al., 2019).

19 The Belgian civil intelligence service, whose skills and missions are oriented towards the interior of the country.

20 Common circular (COL 11/2013) of 7 June 2013 of the Minister of Justice, the Minister of the Interior and the Professional Association of Public Prosecutors at the Courts of Appeal, also called the “infoflux” circular, relating to the exchange of information concerning the monitoring of free persons subject to compliance with conditions and the procedure for tracing convicts or inmates who are fugitives or escapees.

21 So-called “verification” directive revised on 12 December 2016, which aims to clarify the “help-control” methodology of justice assistants in terms of verification and especially to recall the means of verification made available to them as part of the guidance.

22 Memorandum n° 2019/01 of the general administration of maisons de justice of 5 March 2019.

23 For an overview of the organisation chart, see Administration générale des maisons de justice, Rapport d’activités, 2019, Brussels, 2020, 7.

24 Memorandum n° 2019/01 of the general administration of maisons de justice of 5 March 2019.

25 Ibid.

26 According to Jonckheere and Kaminski (2013, 1163), this metaphor designates “the professional positioning of the justice assistant invited to occupy an intermediary position between the mandating authority and the defendant that she is responsible for supporting: more specifically, she is invited to place herself at an equal distance between the mandating authority and the defendant, each appearing graphically at the angle of an equilateral triangle”.

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Benjamin Mine, Alexia Jonckheere, Patrick Jeuniaux et Isabelle Detry, « Cases (Un)like Any Other »Champ pénal/Penal field [En ligne], 27 | 2022, mis en ligne le 21 avril 2022, consulté le 22 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Benjamin Mine

Chercheur/Chef de travaux, Département de Criminologie, Institut national de criminalistique et de criminologie (INCC)
Bd du Jardin Botanique 50, 7e étage, Bte 71, 1000 Bruxelles

Articles du même auteur

Alexia Jonckheere

Chercheure/Chef de travaux, Département de Criminologie, Institut national de criminalistique et de criminologie (INCC)
Bd du Jardin Botanique 50, 7e étage, Bte 71, 1000 Bruxelles

Articles du même auteur

Patrick Jeuniaux

Chercheur/Chef de travaux, Département de Criminologie, Institut national de criminalistique et de criminologie (INCC)
Bd du Jardin Botanique 50, 7e étage, Bte 71, 1000 Bruxelles

Isabelle Detry

Chercheure, Département de Criminologie, Département de Criminologie, Institut national de criminalistique et de criminologie (INCC)
Bd du Jardin Botanique 50, 7e étage, Bte 71, 1000 Bruxelles

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