The treatment of young adults in the criminal justice system Contents

1The case for change to the treatment of young adults in the criminal justice system

4.In this chapter we consider the evidence regarding the needs and characteristics of young adults in the criminal justice system, and the extent to which they can be classified as a distinct group, which has led many of our witnesses to contend that young adults merit a distinctive approach and to call for corresponding changes in policy and practice.

Defining young adulthood

5.In defining young adulthood, there is considerable debate regarding terminology and associated age ranges. Dr Nathan Hughes defined adolescence as the period between the ages of 10 and 24 and noted that late adolescence is used interchangeably with young adulthood to refer to a distinctive phase of development occurring between the ages of 18 and 24.3 These various definitions are reflected in the evidence presented to us, in which several different age ranges as used for ‘young adults’4, while others had a preference not purely to define maturity by age5. Nevertheless, the majority referred to young adults as 18 to 24 year olds.6 There is confusion too in the categorisation of young adults by the Ministry of Justice, for example, they variously define them variously as aged 18 to 20, as 18 to 24, and as “adults” for different purposes.7

6.Although the number of young adults involved in the criminal justice system, who are typically men, has fallen in recent years—those aged 18 to 20 in custody decreased by 41% over the five years to June 2015, whilst the number of 18 to 24 year olds in custody fell by 26% over the same period8—young adults still account for a significant and disproportionate volume of criminal justice caseloads. Adults under the age of 25 represent ten per cent of the general population but account for 30 to 40 per cent of cases, including policing time, those supervised by probation, and prison entrants.9 Young adult men are more likely than adult men to serve sentences for violent or acquisitive offences and more likely to be involved in robbery or low level drug dealing.10 Young adults have the highest reconviction rates of any group: 75% are reconvicted within two years of release from prison.11 Young adults serving community sentences have equally poor outcomes: they have the highest breach rates of adults serving community sentences.12 The poorest outcomes are typically for young black and Muslim men and care leavers, each of whom are over-represented in the system.

General characteristics of young adults in the criminal justice system

7.Our witnesses advanced a number of theories to explain both young adults’ over-representation within the system and their poorer outcomes. Much of the recent research on young adults in the criminal justice system derives from a substantial programme convened by the Barrow Cadbury Trust which established and has supported financially the Transition to Adulthood Alliance (also known as T2A), a coalition of 12 criminal justice, health and youth organisations. The publications produced by T2A together provide a significant body of evidence about young adults’ characteristics and needs. T2A concluded from this evidence, which it characterised as “wide and robust”13, that young adults are distinct from older adults in terms of both their needs and their outcomes. Its evidence base is founded on three main bodies of research: criminology, neurology and psychology. We heard from experts in each of these fields and present a summary of the current state of understanding of the issue below.

Brain development and its impact on propensity to criminal behaviour

8.The weight of evidence from our witnesses was that young adulthood is a distinctive period of development.14 T2A asserted that there is an irrefutable body of evidence from advances in behavioural neuro-science that the typical adult male brain is not fully formed until at least the mid-20s, meaning that young adult males typically have more psycho-social similarities to children than to older adults. Those parts of the brain influencing maturity that are the last to develop are responsible for controlling how individuals weigh long-term gains and costs against short-term rewards.15 As the system to regulate ‘reward seeking’ is still evolving this affects how young adults judge situations and decide to act, including consequential thinking, future-oriented decisions, empathy, remorse, and planning.16

9.In typical brain maturation, temperance—the ability to evaluate the consequences of actions and to limit impulsiveness and risk-taking—is a significant factor in moderating behaviour and the fact that its development continues into a person’s 20s can influence anti-social decision-making among young adults.17 For example in his research on persistent offenders, Professor of Criminology at the University of Cambridge, Sir Anthony Bottoms, found that they had a high level of involvement with peers who themselves had criminal records and also identified the “excitement of offending” as one of the key obstacles to them stopping crime.18

10.Professor Bottoms explained to us that criminal behaviour typically decelerates rapidly in the early 20s, importantly including those who had hitherto been persistent offenders. His studies of the process of stopping offending—known as desistance—with Professor Joanna Shapland indicate that as they progress to adulthood young people realise that ongoing criminal behaviour is “not a sensible path and they want to change”.19 This transition and the underlying development of maturity is a process, rather than an event. The Royal College of Psychiatrists observed that “young adults are at a stage of developing their self-identity, settling into the adult world, finding their place, gaining independence and finding partners”.20 This is important because significant life events such as becoming settled in relationships, employment and stable accommodation and developing a sense of agency (being in control of one’s behaviour and thoughts) are known to support desistance from crime.21 At the same time sociological research demonstrates that changes to societal norms have prolonged the age at which people reach these key markers of adulthood; they typically occur five to seven years later today than they did a few decades ago.22

The social context of young adults in the criminal justice system

11.The majority of young adults involved in crime are known to a range of statutory services, and most will have been engaged with them in some way as a child. Dr Chitabesan, consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist, characterised the situation for young adults reaching 18 as in “double jeopardy”, as they continue to be at high risk of reoffending but support services which can act as protective factors, such as mental health, education and youth offending services, fall away.23 T2A described youth to adult transitions between services as “often turbulent and poorly planned” and said that this can exacerbate offending behaviour, for example, moving from care services to independent living; leaving school or further education; and moving from child and adolescent mental health or drug services to adult services.24

12.These challenges are reinforced by restricted opportunities for young adults to gain financial independence. For example, a quarter of those aged 18 to 24 in the UK are not engaged in employment, training or education; 18 to 20 year olds have a lower minimum wage than those who are aged over 21; most young people under the age of 21 do not qualify for housing benefit; and 18 to 25 year olds are specifically excluded from receiving the ‘living’ wage.25

13.Finally, involvement in the criminal justice system can in itself hinder the transition to adulthood. Dr Delmage, consultant adolescent psychiatrist, emphasised the critical importance of understanding the social context in which young offenders’ development occurs, “how their brains become wired” and how this can impact on their sense of identity. He explained:

… the young people I tend to work with have no identity within school; they have very little identity within home. The prosocial parents do not want their kids playing with them. So suddenly they are in a situation of trying to work out who they are; there is an antisocial group of kids at the end of the road who are very happy to give them an identity and that forms who they are. 26

He also pointed to research indicating that even low level involvement in the criminal justice system, including receiving cautions, can have a detrimental effect on developing identity. Having a criminal conviction can also have practical implications for access to employment and housing.27

14.Research from a range of disciplines strongly supports the view that young adults are a distinct group with needs that are different both from children under 18 and adults older than 25, underpinned by the developmental maturation process that takes place in this age group. In the context of the criminal justice system this is important as young people who commit crime typically stop doing so by their mid-20s. Those who decide no longer to commit crime can have their efforts to achieve this frustrated both by their previous involvement in the criminal justice system due to the consequences of having criminal records, and limitations in achieving financial independence due to lack of access to affordable accommodation or well-paid employment as wages and benefits are typically lower for this age group.

Neuro-disabilities and mental disorders

15.We received compelling evidence that another important consideration for young adults in the criminal justice system is the potential presence of atypical brain development. Dr Chitsabesan told us that those who persist in criminal behaviour into adulthood are more likely to have neuro-psychological deficits, including cognitive difficulties with thinking, acting, and solving problems, emotional literacy and regulation, learning difficulties and language problems associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), autism, learning and language disorders and head injuries.28 Similarly, she said these deficits, particularly ADHD and traumatic brain injury (TBI, an impairment to the brain from an external mechanical force) are associated with more violent offending.29 Both she and Dr Nathan Hughes, an expert in social policy, highlighted to us the high prevalence of neuro-developmental disorders that young offenders in custody are estimated to have:

Prevalence among young people in general population

Prevalence among young people in custody

Learning disability



Communication impairment






Autistic Spectrum Disorder



Any head injury



Head injury resulting in loss of consciousness



16.Taking head injury as an example, there is far higher prevalence of Acquired Brain Injury—estimated to be between 50-60%—among young prisoners compared to older prisoners.30 Young adults with traumatic brain injury (TBI) are even less likely to reach full neurological development by their mid-20s. The consequences of TBI include poor memory; reduced concentration capacity; reduced ability to process different streams of information; poor initiation and planning; lack of self-monitoring; decreased awareness of one’s own or others’ emotional state; and particularly, poor social judgments. This can contribute to behavioural problems, such as conduct disorder, attention problems, increased aggression, and impulse control problems, and mental health problems like anxiety and depression. Perhaps not surprisingly therefore it is associated with earlier onset, more serious, and more frequent offending and those with TBI typically present with especially complex needs and can be particularly challenging to manage. The Centre for Mental Health has estimated that a traumatic brain injury increases the likelihood of crime by at least 50%.31 Substance misuse issues are more highly prevalent in prisoners with a TBI history, sometimes linked to self-medicating, and its presence can limit an individual’s capacity to manage such issues.32 The transitional milestones mentioned in paragraph 12 tend to be more difficult to negotiate for those with neuro-disabilities, hence prolonging their involvement in the system.33

17.Neuro-disabilities are distinct from mental disorders or psychiatric illnesses or diseases which appear primarily as abnormalities of thought, feeling or behaviour, producing either distress or impairment of function, although they may co-exist. The prevalence of these disorders is also thought to be high in young adults and there is some overlap in how they manifest themselves behaviourally. The Royal College of Psychiatrists identified the most common mental disorder in childhood as conduct disorder which affects the processing power of the brain and is strongly associated with offending behaviour; rates can be as high as 80-90% in young offenders’ institutions.34 In addition, although the prevalence of speech, language and communication needs among young adults in the criminal justice system is unknown, it is reasonable to conclude this is high as these affect over 60% of those under 18. People with such needs experience problems with comprehension and expression, which are likely to affect their ability to understand the justice system, including compliance with statutory requirements, and to communicate their wishes and needs. 35

Risk and vulnerability

18.Other adverse life circumstances can similarly impact on young adults’ maturity and affect typical brain development. Durham Tees Valley CRC made the following observation about what may bring a young adult into the criminal justice system:

[ … ] too often the resulting behaviour of a long complex journey with several other contributing factors both internal and external to that person which if recognised or effectively addressed previously may have led to a very different outcome. This population have predominantly been exposed to chaotic lifestyles, complex histories, child abuse, violence or residential care, compounded in many instances by mental ill health and lack of maturity.36

One of the prisoners interviewed by Drs Gooch and Treadwell had told them that “everyone in prison has scars”. Young adults involved in the criminal justice system have often themselves been victims of crime. Many have a history of being exposed to violence, including in the home, abuse, neglect, bereavement relating to the deaths of parents, siblings and other close relatives, and criminal behaviour by parents and siblings. These traumatic events have frequently occurred from a very young age and, as they remain young, the traumatic effects may be raw.37 For example, Drs Gooch and Treadwell found that former looked after children frequently continued to struggle with family relationships, feelings of rejection and abandonment, and the loss of family members into their early twenties.38

19.Professor Williams explained that the effect of trauma in childhood and adolescence compounds issues with maturation as those affected experience heightened levels of flight or fight reactions, and hence increased chances of risk-taking behaviour.39 Drs Gooch and Treadwell found in their research that some prisoners saw violence, self-harm and arson as ways of managing their personal distress and anxiety.40 Lord Harris concluded that by virtue of their age, life experiences and the nature of prison, “all young adults in custody are vulnerable”41, a view that was supported widely by our witnesses.42

20.On the other hand, as we identified in paragraph 7 above, young adults can commit some very serious offences. They can also be highly challenging for those who work in the criminal justice system to manage, which can be attributed partly to their lack of maturity as illustrated by Dr Gooch:

[ … ] In our research about the way young people behave when they transition, we found that some are very vulnerable at the point of coming into a young adult YOI, where they perhaps look very green and naive and may be at greater risk of victimisation. On the flipside, it is interesting that some of those who have been in a juvenile YOI have quite a lot of custodial experience when they come into a young adult young offender’s institution. There is a degree of sophistication in their behaviour, so they are perhaps more likely to engage in violence and bullying and may come into conflict with staff more. However, they lack real maturity in their thinking and behaviour, which can make them quite a challenging group to respond to in custody.43

Other needs and characteristics of young adults in the criminal justice system

21.T2A noted the importance of acknowledging the additional distinct needs of young adult women, BAME young adults and care leavers. The Young Review, chaired by Baroness Young of Hornsey, examined policy and practice for black and minority ethnic (BAME) people in the criminal justice system and established that over-representation is particularly high for those aged 18 to 24. Baroness Young emphasised the importance of acknowledging the diversity of experiences of young people categorised as BAME and of criminal justice agencies becoming more consistent in data collection regarding faith and ethnicity to facilitate more culturally specific treatment.44 Maslaha, an organisation which seeks to tackle long-standing issues affecting Muslim communities, identified that Muslims exceed all other faith groups in levels of unemployment, economic inactivity, ill health, educational underachievement, and poor housing conditions.45

22.Nearly half of young men and two thirds of young women in custody aged between 16 and 21 have recently been in statutory care.46 Some witnesses, including T2A, identified that those leaving care face particularly acute challenges in desisting from offending and making an effective transition to adulthood.47 NOMS noted that some young care leavers are entitled to additional support from local authorities that can help address these problems and which should be reflected in their sentence plans.48 Much of the research that has been done on young adults involved in crime has been with males, resulting in a lack of research on differences between young women and young men.49 Dr Delmage had found in his practice that males tend to externalise their trauma, through violence, aggression and verbal threats, whereas females are more likely to internalise distress.50 Psycho-social maturity is quicker to develop in females, according to NOMS guidance.51

Implications for the criminal justice system

23.The developmental status of young adults in the criminal justice system has important implications for practice. Dr Delmage, consultant adolescent forensic psychiatrist, explained to us that as the brain is a plastic organ it can heal to an extent up to the age of 25 if taken out of “aversive circumstances” which can cause brain changes, for example, separation from family and friends and exposure to punitive conditions.52 While the brain is continuing to develop there is a risk that problems will be compounded by involvement in the criminal justice system itself, or developmentally inappropriate interventions provided by its agencies, and that opportunities will be missed to repair in a timely manner the developmental harm caused by brain injury or other forms of trauma identified in paragraphs 18 and 19.

24.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.

3 Dr Nathan Hughes (YAO0015)

4 See for example Barrow Cadbury Trust / Transition to Adulthood (T2A) Alliance(YAO0010); Ministry of Justice (YAO0018)

5 See for example Royal College of Psychiatrists (YAO0033); The Howard League for Penal Reform (YAO0023); Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (YAO0024); Centre For Justice Innovation (YAO0006)

6 See for example Royal College of Psychiatrists (YAO0033); British Psychological Society (YAO0037); Criminal Justice Alliance (YAO0026); Revolving Doors Agency (YAO0013)

7 Ministry of Justice (YAO0018)

9 Barrow Cadbury Trust / Transition to Adulthood (T2A) Alliance(YAO0010)

10 National Offender Management Service, Better Outcomes for Young Adult Men: Evidence Based Commissioning Principles, August 2015

11 Barrow Cadbury Trust / Transition to Adulthood (T2A) Alliance(YAO0010)

12 Ibid.

13 Barrow Cadbury Trust / Transition to Adulthood (T2A) Alliance(YAO0010)

14 Q7 [Dr Hughes]; Royal College of Psychiatrists (YAO0033); Professor Sir Anthony Bottoms (YAO0022); Prison Reform Trust (YAO0017); Dr Nathan Hughes (YAO0015); British Psychological Society (YAO0037); Barrow Cadbury Trust / Transition to Adulthood (T2A) Alliance(YAO0010)

16 Q9 [Dr Delmage]; National Offender Management Service, Better Outcomes for Young Adult Men: Evidence Based Commissioning Principles, August 2015; YAO0062

17 Ibid; Barrow Cadbury Trust / Transition to Adulthood (T2A) Alliance(YAO0010)

18 Q10 [Professor Sir Anthony Bottoms]

20 Royal College of Psychiatrists (YAO0033)

21 Ibid; Professor Sir Anthony Bottoms (YAO0022); Q5 [Dr Hughes]

22 Barrow Cadbury Trust / Transition to Adulthood (T2A) Alliance (YAO0010); Centre For Justice Innovation (YAO0006); See also Q166 [Ms Hinnigan]

23 Q7

24 Barrow Cadbury Trust / Transition to Adulthood (T2A) Alliance(YAO0010);

25 St Giles Trust YAO0009; Barrow Cadbury Trust / Transition to Adulthood (T2A) Alliance(YAO0010)

26 Q6. Prosocial behaviour is positive, helpful, and intended to promote social acceptance and friendship. See also The Howard League for Penal Reform (YAO0023)

27 YAO0049; Nacro; Q398 [Ms Mullins; Mr Kastner]; Q401 [Mr Ilic}

28 Q5

29 Q21; British Psychological Society

30 Barrow Cadbury Trust / Transition to Adulthood (T2A) Alliance(YAO0010); British Psychological Society (YAO0037); UK Acquired Brain Injury Forum (YAO0001)

31 Parsonage, M., Traumatic Brain Injury and Offending: an economic analysis, July 2016, London: Centre for Mental Health

32 Check reference; Q7 [Dr Chitsabesan]; Q480 [Professor Williams]

33 Q5 [Dr Hughes]

34 Royal College of Psychiatrists (YAO0033)

35 Q19 [Dr Delmage]; British Psychological Society (YAO0037); Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (YAO0024)

37 Q156 [Lord McNally]; Q166 [Ms Hinnigan]; Q343 [Mr Greenhalgh]; Q480 [Mr Rutherford]; University of Birmingham (YAO0028); Q467 [Professor Williams]

38 University of Birmingham (YAO0028)

39 Q480 Professor Williams

40 University of Birmingham (YAO0028)

42 St Giles Trust (YAO0009); Spark Inside (YAO0060); Barrow Cadbury Trust / Transition to Adulthood (T2A) Alliance(YAO0010); Prison Reform Trust (YAO0017); NACRO (YAO0021); Inquest (YAO0035); Criminal Justice Alliance (YAO0026);

45 Maslaha (YAO0034)

46 Barrow Cadbury Trust / Transition to Adulthood (T2A) Alliance(YAO0010)

47 Ibid.; Ministry of Justice (YAO0018); University of Birmingham (YAO0028)

48 Q105. See also National Offender Management Service (2013) Practice Guidance: Working with Care Leavers (18-25), in custody and the community, to reduce reoffending and promote effective transition to adulthood, London: NOMS.

49 Q14 [Professor Bottoms; Dr Hughes; Dr Delmage]

51 Ministry of Justice (YAO0018)

52 Q6; Royal College of Psychiatrists (YAO0033)

24 October 2016