MPs call for ‘step change’ for treatment of young adults in the justice system
Three quarters of young adults in the criminal justice system are reconvicted within two years of release, according to a report published today by the House of Commons’ justice committee. The MPs called for ‘a step-change’ in policy and practice in relation to young adults acknowledging that they were still developing neurologically up to the age of 25 and often had a high prevalence of atypical brain development.
One recommendation is for a consideration of maturity as a mitigating factor in sentencing and for it to be reflected in the code for Crown Prosecutors. MPs also want the forthcoming prison reform bill to extend for those up to the age of 25 the sentence of detention in a young offender institution as opposed to prison.
According to the report, rates of ‘learning disability, communication impairment and autistic spectrum disorder’ were 10 times as high as they were among young people in the general population. It reckoned that that there was a high level of Acquired Brain Injury which, according to estimates by the Centre for Mental Health, could increase the likelihood of crime by 50%. They also had the highest reconviction rate.
‘The approach to young adults in the criminal justice system must be based on a robust assessment of the evidence,’ commented committee chair Bob Neill. ‘If not, it will continue to fail, with so many missed opportunities to transform lives, repair harm, lower costs, and reduce crime.’ Research in criminology, psychology and neurology indicated the need for ‘a distinctive approach’, Neill said. ‘There is overwhelming enthusiasm for change within the sector. And yet the Government has been hesitant to act. We do not understand why it has not been more courageous, and has hidden behind outdated legislation,’ he added.
The MPs noted that the number of young adults in the justice system had fallen in recent years. However adults under 25, who represented one in 10 of the general population, accounted for up to four out of 10 criminal cases.The ‘worst outcomes’ were are for young black and Muslim men and care leavers. According to the report, nearly half of young men and two thirds of young women in custody aged between 16 and 21 have recently been in care and ‘many have a history of being exposed to violence, including in the home, abuse, neglect, bereavement and criminal behaviour’.
In our view there is a strong case for a distinct approach to the treatment of young adults in the criminal justice system. Young adults are still developing neurologically up to the age of 25 and have a high prevalence of atypical brain development. These both impact on criminal behaviour and have implications for the appropriate treatment of young adults by the criminal justice system as they are more challenging to manage, harder to engage, and tend to have poorer outcomes. For young adults with neuro-disabilities maturity may be significantly hindered or delayed. Dealing effectively with young adults while the brain is still developing is crucial for them in making successful transitions to a crime-free adulthood. They typically commit a high volume of crimes and have high rates of re-offending and breach, yet they are the most likely age group to stop offending as they ‘grow out of crime’. Flawed interventions that do not recognise young adults’ maturity can slow desistance and extend the period of involvement in the system.
House of Commons’ justice committee, para 24
‘Blueprint for change’
- Overarching principles to inform a step-change in policy and practice in relation to young adults and to underpin a strategic approach ‘founded on the clear philosophy that the system should seek to acknowledge explicitly [young adults’] developmental status, focus on [their] strengths, build their resilience and recognise unapologetically the degree of overlap of their status as victims and offenders’;
- Understanding risks and needs including ‘through a policy of universal screening by prisons and probation services for mental health needs, neuro-developmental disorders, maturity and neuro-psychological impairment’;
- A distinct approach with specialist staff in prison and probation services and other criminal justice professionals dealing with young adults underpinned by more in-depth training;
- Building the evidence base for the treatment of young adult offenders;
- Cross-departmental reform to extend statutory support provided to under-18s by a range of agencies to people up to the age of 25, and consideration of legislative change to recognise the developmental status of young adults;
- Further work to evaluate the impact of maturity as a mitigating factor in sentencing and the inclusion of age and maturity in the Code for Crown Prosecutors, and the testing of young adult courts; and
- Use of the forthcoming prison reform bill to extend for those up to the age of 25 the sentence of detention in a young offender institution for 18 to 20 year olds, together with testing various models of ways of holding young adults in custodial institutions, revision of the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme, and other measures to reduce violence in prisons.
Jon is editor of the Justice Gap. He is a freelance journalist. Jon's books include The First Miscarriage of Justice (Waterside Press, 2014), The Justice Gap (LAG, 2009) and People Power (Daily Telegraph/LawPack, 2008). Jon is a journalism lecturer at Winchester University and a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln. He is twice winner of the Bar Council's journalism award (2015 and 2005) and is shortlisted for this year's Criminal Justice Alliance's journalism award