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Juvenile or criminal law for young delinquents? Alumna Maaike Kempes is on the case

As an enthusiastic nature lover, Maaike Kempes began studying biology at Leiden University. Now, she is extraordinary professor of Forensic Neuropedagogy at the faculty of Social Sciences. She is researching how neurobiology plays a role in delinquent behaviour among young people. ‘They’re like Ferraris without brakes.

‘I had actually intended to study biochemistry, with DNA and that sort of thing; I thought that would be interesting,’ Maaike tells us. ‘You need either chemistry or biology before you can do that. That’s how I came to be studying biology at Leiden. I was a bit of a recluse during the first two years of my time as a student but then in the third year, I joined Asopos, the rowing club, and started building a social life. For me, studying itself was fantastic. I love to learn and was one of those students who are always raising their hands when a question is asked.’ Looking back, Kempes is happy with her choice. ‘The advantage of biology is that it’s a really broad subject. You learn how to think as a scientist and acquire good research skills. Biology is quite simply a very good basis.’

Aggression in children and apes

And yet, she didn’t continue in biology. After gaining her bachelor’s degree, she did a complementary medical project in which you take part in biomedical sciences and medicine programmes. She went on to do doctoral research by way of an internship in medical pharmacology and at the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport. Kempes: ‘I researched aggressive behaviour in children at Utrecht University Medical Centre. One of my supervisors was a psychiatrist and the other the well-known primatologist Jan van Hooff. Her research into aggressiveness in children continued during her postdoc. Kempes explains: ‘Children with aggression issues are not necessarily more often angry than other children. The frequency is the same. But when these children do become angry, there are no holds barred!’ She has also done a lot of research on apes and noted many similarities with humans. Unfortunately, the research was discontinued due to the economic crisis.

Maaike Kempes

After that, Kempes went to work at the WODC (Scientific and Research Documentation Centre) where she coordinated research into sectioning juveniles. ‘I discovered that I was more of a scientist than I had thought. Coordinating was too removed from the research for me. I always got really enthusiastic when someone talked about the research results and I missed that.’

Ferraris without brakes

Kempes now works at the NIFP (Dutch Institute of Forensic Psychiatry and Psychology) and is also Professor by Special Appointment Enhancing Neuroscientific Knowledge at Leiden University. This professorship covers the knowledge of how neurobiology plays a role in the diagnostics of people who display delinquent behaviour. It deals in particular with young people who come in contact with criminal law.

Kempes and her team have received an eight-year grant to research factors involved in determining which criminal law is applied in the conviction of 18 to 23-year-olds: juvenile or adult criminal law. Up until 2014, those 18 and over were judged under adult criminal law. But research has shown that the emotional development of the brain continues until a person reaches 30 years of age. This development also includes the capacity for self-control. Kempes: ‘Young people aged between 18 and 30 are like Ferraris without brakes. You see a lot of drug abuse, accidents and other risky behaviour in this group. By far the majority of delinquents are aged between 16 and 30. And that goes for all kinds of offences. If you are convicted according to the juvenile system, you are given a lot of pedagogic help and help with your development in contrast to what happens in adult criminal law. So that can make a significant difference. We’d like to develop a sort of tool kit with which to reach a better decision about which criminal law should be applied when convicting young people aged between 18 and 23.’


‘From my biology degree, I learned to think in a multidisciplinary way, which I also do now in my work. Obviously, it’s very worthwhile to be a specialist, but someone has to connect all those lawyers, neuroscientists and psychiatrists with each other. The task of connector is often underestimated. I think it’s great that I can fulfil this role and that my degree has contributed to that. People sometimes ask me if I wouldn’t rather have studied medicine or educational sciences. My answer is always: No, if I had to choose once more, I would definitely choose biology again.’

Text: Nynke Smits

Maaike Kempes
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