Young adults in the criminal justice system Contents


Our predecessor Committee published a report on the treatment of young adults aged 18 to 25 in the criminal justice system in October 2016. The Committee’s conclusions were produced in the form of a draft strategic approach which it wished to see the Government adopt. It proposed this because of the failure of consecutive Governments to act on the weight of evidence that dealing effectively with young adults, while the brain is still developing, is crucial to enable them to make a successful transition to a crime-free adulthood. There was also overwhelming enthusiasm within the sector for change. The Committee wished to see universal screening for maturity by prisons and probation services, and the adoption of a distinct approach to young adults up to 25 with trained, specialist staff, with emphasis on developing and testing dedicated approaches.

The then Government’s response, published in January 2017, committed to further developing operational practice in response to maturity but did not accept that the bold approach advocated by our predecessors was necessary to improve outcomes for young adults.

Having agreed with our predecessor Committee that the response was disappointing and did not pay sufficient attention to the strength of the evidence for more significant change, we have taken evidence and engaged in correspondence with the Ministry to examine the rationale and efficacy of their approach. We produced this report as, 18 months after the response, we are not persuaded that the narrow approach adopted has had any positive impact on outcomes for young adults. Responding to young adults appropriately and effectively is important because, while young adults offend the most, they have the most potential to stop offending and are also resource intensive as they are challenging to manage.

In chapter one, we summarise the conclusions and recommendations of our predecessor Committee and the then Government’s response. In chapter two, we review the Government’s overall approach to governance, policy and practice for young adults in the criminal justice system, which it says is guided by limited resources, practicality, and other priorities in the system. While we have some sympathy for these constraints, it is nevertheless important for the Ministry to reflect on the potential benefits of targeting scarce resources at those prisoners for whom there may be greatest impact; we did not find evidence of such reflection. We make recommendations for ensuring that the distinct needs of young adults up to the age of 25 are considered in various aspects of the Ministry’s activities, including the cross-departmental Reducing Reoffending Taskforce and efforts to address racial inequalities in response to the Lammy Review. In chapter three, we also welcome the creation of a probation service board to oversee work on young offenders and young adults, which we would like to see replicated for prisons.

In chapter three, we review in more detail the Ministry and HMPPS’ progress in implementing its preferred approach. This includes piloting: a screening tool for maturity; work with people with brain injury; and, a resource pack to support staff working with people with low maturity, some of which has been delayed. We are encouraged to see much greater weight being given to maturity in the treatment of young adults, but found no evidence of a defined approach for what should happen once maturity screening has been done or of the impact this is having, even in pilot areas. It is also not clear to us how the Ministry is assessing the impact of its approach, so we call on them to specify the measures by which they intend to monitor improvement in outcomes for young adults in custody and in the community.

We were similarly disappointed to find limited progress on addressing gaps in the evidence base for effective practice with young adults. Our predecessor Committee recommended these gaps be addressed as a matter of urgency, as misdirected interventions can serve to increase criminality. We found little evidence of progress on specific pieces of research mentioned in the Government’s response, or on our predecessor’s recommendations for the Crown Prosecution Service and Sentencing Council to undertake further research. HMPPS had seemingly made no progress on understanding the relative effectiveness of custodial options for young adults. Its focus had rather been on trying to make prisons which hold young adults alongside older adults work as well as they can. There is no clear assessment of how that is working either. This is in sharp contrast with the investment and concerted activity towards improving the treatment of under 18s, including reward schemes and work to address the trauma many of them have experienced in their lives, which is showing promising results. We also consider in this chapter the Offender Management in Custody model, designed to ensure that all prisoners get support and guidance from a dedicated prison officer. We recommend that consideration be given to providing additional support to those assessed as lacking maturity.

Welcome progress has been made by HMPPS and the Youth Justice Board in improving the attention paid to the “cliff-edge” transition between the youth and adult systems and the particular needs of people who have been looked after by the local authority (care leavers) and we are keen to see the results of this. We are pleased too that the Sentencing Council and the Crown Prosecution Service have undertaken to continue to review their guidance in the light of the evidence on maturity. We also hope to see progress on the idea of testing young adult courts.

Finally, we call on the Ministry to take decisive action on more fundamental reform. We advocate revisiting urgently our previous recommendations for a new framework for the disclosure of criminal records for children and young adults. In addition, by 2030 we expect prison and probation services to have developed approaches which properly assess and address young adults’ needs, recognise their strengths, and support them to develop non-criminal identities, resulting in better outcomes both for them and society at large.

Published: 20 June 2018