The treatment of young adults in the criminal justice system Contents

4Blueprint for a strategic approach to the treatment of young adults in the criminal justice system

140.There is overwhelming evidence that the criminal justice system does not adequately address the distinct needs of young adults. Scientific and sociological understanding of the development of young people and the factors which may dispose them to criminal behaviour or to desist from that behaviour has made recent important advances. Our inquiry has also taken place at a time of significant policy change, both in announcements of reforms to the operation of prisons and to the delivery of youth justice services and the embedding of reforms made by the previous Government to probation services and the commencement of some devolution of criminal justice budgets. While much of the detail is not yet known, in particular about the nature of reforms to prisons and the autonomy of governors, there has been a notable absence of resolution regarding the Government’s strategy for young adults despite assurances being given in the MoJ’s response to the Harris Review and in evidence to us that it was being considered as part of the prison reform agenda. We have not seen any compelling evidence of why it has not been courageous in its strategy for young adults, rather than hiding behind existing and outdated legislation which it is within its gift to seek to change. In the light of the Government’s failure to act and in recognition of the weight and wealth of evidence provided to us in the course of our inquiry, as well as the overwhelming enthusiasm within the sector for change, we present our recommendations to the Government in the form of a blueprint for a strategic framework which we expect to be adopted as part of their forthcoming reform plan.

Overarching principles

141.Both age and maturity should be taken into significantly greater account within the criminal justice system. The rationale of the system for young adults should presume that up to the age of 25 young adults are typically still maturing. A developmental approach should be taken that recognises that how they perceive, process and respond to situations is a function of their developmental stage and other factors affecting their maturity, and secondarily their culture and life experience. Navigating the system is particularly challenging for those with neuro-disabilities, neuro-developmental disorders, mental disorders and learning and communication needs, many of which co-exist and compound each other, and which are exacerbated by the trauma that many young adults have recently experienced. There must be a step change in policy and practice to recognise that, while most young adults involved in crime want to change, their distinct developmental status and neurological impairments impact on their experience of the system and their capacity to desist from crime. Guidance alone will not provide this.

142.The strategic approach to young adults should be founded on the clear philosophy that the system should seek to acknowledge explicitly their developmental status, focus on young adults’ strengths, build their resilience and recognise unapologetically the degree of overlap between their status as victims and offenders. A common understanding of maturity should be devised by the Government which recognises typical and atypical maturation amongst young adults and is applied across the criminal justice system. Understanding of brain development, neuro-disabilities and trauma-informed approaches should be mandatory within basic prison and probation officer training. Both these elements would create cultural change in the treatment of this cohort by fostering a stronger understanding amongst all criminal justice professionals of the factors that bring young adults into the system and those which influence their ability to change their behaviour, which is not just about punishment and managing risk.

Understanding risks and needs

143.The strategy must also address the current unacceptable situation that the prevalence amongst prisoners and those supervised by the probation service of a range of disabilities, disorders, cognitive difficulties, and forms of emotional trauma are both unknown and largely unaddressed, affecting their behaviour and prospects of rehabilitation. Most young adults in the criminal justice system will have had their needs assessed in the youth justice system. For those that have not, or for whom there are gaps, there should be a policy of universal screening by prisons and probation services for mental health needs, neuro-developmental disorders, maturity and neuro-psychological impairment, using specified tools developed by NOMS with the support of the Ministry of Justice. This will enable suspected need to be identified consistently and facilitate expert testing and/or responsive individualised support as well as providing evidence of collective levels of need to support commissioning and co-commissioning of specialist health, education, training and other services for young adult offenders.

A distinct approach with specialist staff

144.A specialised approach should be taken to staffing prison and probation services work with young adults, underpinned by more in-depth training. This would enable stronger expertise to be developed effectively to address the behaviours typical of lack of emotional maturity, which includes impulsive, ill-considered actions and non-consequential decision making. Such an approach is likely to be less costly and more effective than widespread in-depth training that would be required for the necessary cultural change to occur amongst all criminal justice professionals who come into contact with young adults. The need to foster desistance must be addressed in the Ministry’s forthcoming prison safety and reform plan which should include as part of a strategy for the management of young adults a commitment to ensuring that prison and probation caseloads for this group are sufficiently small to allow meaningful trusting relationships to be developed to facilitate safeguarding and rehabilitation.


Building the evidence base

145.We are encouraged by the Secretary of State’s emphasis on MoJ policy and practices taking an evidence-based approach. We do not accept the Government’s argument that the proportion of young adults in prison and probation caseloads precludes them from developing a distinct approach and believe that the evidence provides a compelling case for change. Adopting a distinct approach towards young adults is likely to result in improvements in the ways in which they are managed and supported in the criminal justice system which would improve outcomes and reduce costs. The MoJ must act swiftly to minimise the risk that in the context of shrinking budgets young adults will become less of a priority, particularly as there are not currently incentives for criminal justice services to invest in practices which may result in savings to other departments’ and agencies’ budgets rather than their own.

146.Reforms to governor autonomy and the delivery of probation services should not release the MoJ and NOMS from responsibility for stimulating centrally developments in potentially effective practice, expanding the availability of promising programmes, and of robustly evaluating them. A strategic approach should be adopted to collating and analysing existing data, developing the evidence base, identifying gaps in knowledge about how best to treat young adults, providing incentives to governors and probation services for devising and testing new approaches, and disseminating good practice. The MoJ should examine whether a case can be made for investment to facilitate this through the £1.3bn estate modernisation budget, including through the creation of an equivalent of a pupil premium, both for prisons and for CRCs, in recognition of the behavioural challenges young adults pose, the opportunity to repair neurological impairments while their brains are still developing, and their need for more intensive support.

Cross-departmental reform

147.Cross-government recognition must be given to the need to promote desistance among those involved in the criminal justice system by offering the possibility of extending statutory support provided by a range of agencies to under 18s to up to 25 year olds, including through legislative change if necessary. Young adults are treated distinctly by a range of other Government departments, including some which preside over dedicated policies which can hinder the chances of young adults who do not have support networks from desisting from crime. If young adults are to be given the best opportunities to become law-abiding there is a need for a coherent cross-departmental approach that recognises this and seeks to remove structural barriers to gaining sustainable employment, affordable accommodation and developmentally appropriate mental health services, for example, the lower minimum wage and housing and employment benefit entitlements.

148.Legislative provision to recognise the developmental status of young adults may be necessary both to demonstrate political courage in prioritising a better and more consistent approach to the treatment of young adults who offend and to provide a statutory underpinning to facilitate the shift required within the range of cross-government agencies that support young adults. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the resource implications and re-structuring services might be costly to the public purse at least in the short-term, although we believe the cost-benefits are likely to make this worthwhile.

149.Enabling young adults to form non-criminal identities following their involvement in the criminal justice system will require a change in the treatment of their criminal records. We support the Government initiative on banning the box—removing the requirement to disclose criminal convictions in application forms—and hope that it remains an imperative under the new Prime Minister, but reforms may need to go further, including legislative change for young adults to expunge records, incentives for employers to employ ex-offenders, and deferred prosecutions. We will consider this fully in our inquiry on criminal records.

Courts and sentencing

Prosecutions and sentencing

150.We note that the inclusion of maturity as part of a mitigating factor may have lessened the likelihood of age being taken into account in the sentencing of young adults. The Sentencing Council should conduct further research on the impact of this factor in sentencing decisions for 18 to 25 year olds. We would encourage the Director of Public Prosecutions to evaluate the impact of the inclusion of age and maturity in the Code for Crown Prosecutors to satisfy herself that its use reflects properly the maturity of young adult suspects, which may be hidden.

151.There is sufficient flexibility within the community sentencing framework to enable developmentally appropriate practices to be adopted by probation services, underpinned by better assessment and incentives to develop and expand existing initiatives.

Young adult courts

152.The potential of young adult courts are worth testing, particularly if they can be developed cost-neutrally using the expertise of youth sentencers. If the results of the pilots and welcome evaluation are positive in terms of young adults’ experiences and outcomes, the Secretary of State for Justice, Lord Chief Justice, and HMCTS should facilitate such initiatives being adopted more widely.


153.The current conditions in the custodial estate meant that opportunities are being missed to seek to repair the harm that young adults are likely to have experienced in their lives with the risk of hard-wiring challenging behaviours as full brain development is achieved. Imprisonment within unsafe conditions and without purpose is likely to compound their involvement in the system and at worst contribute to violence and further self-inflicted deaths. It is well-evidenced in Lord Harris’s review that policies and practices to safeguard young adult prisoners are under-resourced and hence inoperable. The MoJ and NOMS should either act urgently to recruit and retain more prison officers or the Government should seek to adjust the current sentencing framework to reduce the population to manageable levels by shifting to alternative community-based means effectively to promote public safety.

154.Developing appropriate responses to young adults in the custodial estate is complicated by the existing legislative position for detention in a young offender institution for 18 to 20 year olds. The simplest resolution to this is to extend in the forthcoming reform bill the sentence up to the age of 25 and maintain dual categorisation in those institutions that have already been designated as such. The YOI element of the sentence must be given real meaning through the adoption of a strategic approach to the placement of young adults in appropriate accommodation according to their needs, the options for which are currently unduly narrow, and the development of new initiatives which are more appropriate to their needs. Before this can happen it is imperative that the inexcusable gaps in the research evidence regarding the best strategies for holding young adults in prisons are urgently addressed. This will necessitate the Ministry of Justice, NOMS and prison governors finding means of testing empirically various models of holding young adults, including an examination of the costs and benefits. This should include small dedicated units within prisons holding older adults; a small number of dedicated institutions; piloting of specialist dedicated officers with smaller caseloads, and enhanced provision of therapeutic support. Where young adults are held in mixed institutions there should be a recognised cap on numbers and benchmarking levels should reflect the need for better ratios of staffing.

155.Whole prison approaches should be developed to reduce victimisation and bullying in prisons, within wider strategies on managing violence, to focus on minimising harmful behaviour and addressing its underlying causes through the widespread use of restorative justice and trauma-informed approaches. The IEP scheme should be replaced with a more sophisticated and flexible system of reward and incentives to encourage positive behaviour. Mechanisms should be found to expand within prisons existing promising programmes and focus violence reduction efforts on assessing needs, dealing with trauma and building life skills and resilience, with the provision of specialist support being made available for prisoners with unresolved and/or recent experiences of trauma, loss, abuse and bereavement. We welcome the NICE guidelines specifically for management of neuro-disabilities including brain injury in criminal justice system. The MoJ and NOMS should work with health services to incentivise an expansion of provision to address neuro-disabilities, mental ill health, and learning and communication needs based on a systematic assessment of need.

24 October 2016