Young adults in the criminal justice system Contents

2The Government’s approach to young adults in the criminal justice system

14.Our predecessor Committee looked at the current approaches of the Ministry of Justice, the National Offender Management Service (NOMS, now Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, HMPPS) and other criminal justice agencies towards young adults, examining questions of governance, policy and practice. They examined evidence on the needs and characteristics of young adults in the criminal justice system, including propensity to criminal behaviour arising from factors such as their social background, and research into young people’s psychological and neurological maturation and issues such as brain development, learning disability and acquired and traumatic brain injury. Their conclusion was that “there is a strong case for a distinct approach to the treatment of young adults in the criminal justice system” and that “[d]ealing effectively with young adults while the brain is still developing is crucial for them in making successful transitions to a crime-free adulthood”.19


15.On the issue of governance, the Report concluded that existing arrangements were “unsatisfactory”. For example, in both the Ministry (which has responsibility for strategy) and NOMS, now HMPPS, (which is responsible for operations) while there was designated responsibility for an individual with oversight of young adults, this was part of a wider portfolio which included other specific groups.20 There were differences too in NOMS’ categorisation of young adults, for example, they defined them variously as aged 18 to 20, as 18 to 24, and as “adults” for different purposes. The Committee found that this was “confusing and [did] not inspire [a] coherent approach”.

16.The Committee called for a distinct strategy for young adults “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” a blueprint for which was outlined in their report.21 This included: universal screening by prisons and probation services for mental health needs, neuro-developmental disorders, maturity and neuro-psychological impairment; prisons and probation services adopting a distinct approach to young adults up to 25 with trained, specialist staff; and developing the evidence base by expanding promising approaches and testing different ways of holding young adults in custodial institutions.

17.Our predecessors found that while young adults offend the most, they have the most potential to stop offending; they are also resource intensive as they are challenging to manage. The Report concluded that a strong case could be made for recognising that expenditure to make the system more developmentally responsive would pay dividends in reduced costs to the system.22 To facilitate a dedicated approach, the Committee therefore proposed that the MoJ adopt an invest-to-save approach, and examine the creation of an equivalent to the pupil premium for prisons and Community Rehabilitation Companies.

18.In its response to the Report, the Government did not address directly our predecessor’s observations about governance and said that it did not agree that a strategy was necessary, as the principle that young adults mature up into their mid-twenties already informed operational practice. The response stated:

… we want to take pragmatic measures to ensure that the services and interventions related to maturity will be available to the widest number of offenders based on their need. By targeting services in this way, we should see an efficient use of resources, and the most effective outcomes for those who need them. We do not accept the recommendation to specifically attach additional resources to this age group in a way similar to a “pupil premium”.23

19.The MoJ has since reformed “the whole framework through which the prison system is run” so as to create a system in which accountabilities are no longer “blurred and unclear”. From 1 April 2017:

The result of this appears to us to be that there is no longer a central lead or focus on young adults for prisons within HMPPS. The Ministry explained that each of the practices that were being developed for young adults had their own governance and reporting arrangements, although they did not give examples.25 More visibly, the National Probation Service (NPS) has created a National Young Offender Governance Board comprising regional representatives of NPS divisions and the Youth Justice Board overseeing seven strands of work: governance, disproportionality, looked after children and care leavers, health, management information, transitions, courts and maturity assessments.26

Policy and practice

20.The previous Committee recommended that both age and maturity should be taken into significantly greater account within the criminal justice system. It found that policies did not give sufficient weight to the evidence that young adults’ brains mature up to their mid-20s, especially in relation to 22 to 25-year olds. For example, NOMS guidance documents on achieving better outcomes for young men and young women27—which identify principles for developing maturity and potentially effective interventions and activities—had not translated systematically into practice, particularly in prisons, where the Committee found no evidence of a strategy for the management of young adults, either in dedicated or mixed institutions, even for those aged up to 21 who NOMS recognised were a distinct group. There was also no routine screening of maturity prior to sentencing or on the commencement of a community order or prison sentence. The prevalence of neuro-disabilities, mental disorders, and learning and communication needs among those in prison and under the supervision of probation services was not known. The Committee found that this resulted in inconsistent treatment, few dedicated approaches, a lack of sentence planning and, of utmost concern to them, very poor outcomes.28

21.In relation to outcomes, young adults are over-represented in incidents of violence in prison, both as perpetrators and victims, and in adjudications used for behaviour management. In 2017, they accounted for 17% of the prison population, yet in the quarter to December 2017 they perpetrated 38% of assaults and were the victims of 31% of them. During the same period, they received 30% of disciplinary hearings, and represented 37% of prisoners having additional days added to their sentence as a result.29 The validation of the screening assessment highlighted that those who were assessed as less mature were a higher risk of proven reoffending than those who were more mature.30

22.The Ministry favours the development of criminal justice responses which take account of maturity as the “key to improving results for young adults” rather than also devising dedicated approaches based on chronological age (i.e. up to 25) as recommended by our predecessor. Their justification for this was the need for their policies to be guided by limited resources, practicality, and other priorities in the system.31 Mr Spurr told us that dedicated services would be “significantly more expensive” as there would be a need to replicate other forms of specialist service.32 Dr Lee described the system as “remarkably responsive” to “the challenges around maturity” which he saw as the “central thrust” of our predecessor’s report. He explained “[we] recognise that young adults require additional support and assessment and understanding of how to communicate, how to reward and how to sanction. All of that has to respond to their level of maturity.”33

23.Dr Lee did not see it as intellectually coherent for the criminal justice system to raise to 25 the age at which young adults ceased to be treated as immature by default, as had been recommended by our predecessor.34

He said:

Personally, I think where we are is defensible. We could go to 21, but wherever we draw the line we would still have problems with some people. Ultimately, if we live in an age where people can vote at 18 and get married at 18, it strikes me that 18 is where society has placed where you can take decisions for yourself. Therefore, if you are making a decision to commit a crime, you should take responsibility for that.35

24.The previous Committee did not suggest that young adults should not take responsibility for committing crime. They recognised that young adults both commit serious crime and have often themselves been victims of it; and that it could be difficult to disentangle the two. For example, the effect of trauma in childhood and adolescence compounds issues with maturation: those affected by trauma experience heightened levels of flight or fight reactions, and hence have increased chances of risk-taking behaviour. Young adulthood is also a period in which self-identity is developing and when criminal behaviour can reduce rapidly under the right conditions.36 This is therefore a crucial time for young adults—who may not have been exposed to pro-social role models in their childhood—to be supported to find their identities and learn to manage their own behaviour while their brains are still developing. Desistance from crime can be slowed and the creation of negative, criminal identities reinforced through treatment which is not developmentally appropriate. Having a criminal conviction can compound this and create practical difficulties in accessing education, employment and housing. Our predecessors also found inconsistencies in the various ways that other public services defined young adults and treated them. We discuss these in the next section.

25.The challenges of driving forward work on young adults in the absence of a dedicated approach were reflected in our efforts to secure evidence on the Ministry’s progress. Dr Lee did not have Ministerial responsibility for prisoners over 18, but held the brief for offender health across the entire custodial estate, the Lammy Review, and female offenders. His observations in defence of the status quo on approaches towards young adults appeared to us to be in contrast to those on matters within his remit, on which he stated decisively the need for a change in approach, for example:

There is clearly an issue in the provision of mental health care, the proper diagnosis of mental health problems and the subsequent treatment and appropriate location of people once they have been diagnosed. [ … ] I think it is an area where we can do better, but I recognise that other Departments have their own pressures and their own challenges. Fundamentally, if we address that issue—I would ally to it addiction and the appropriate treatment of addiction—we will go some way to improving our recidivism rates.

Governments of all political colours have done some good work in terms of reducing the numbers of people [under 18] we are holding. But we have been left with a very challenging cohort of individuals, and the Department recognises that. [ … ] There is some extremely good work going forward to try to develop the type of institutions that everybody knows we need, to try to give these people a second chance in life.37

26.We are sympathetic to HMPPS’ existing priorities and appreciate that action to address the Committee’s recommendations has taken place in the context of both budget cuts and significant challenges in the prison estate, alongside concerted activity both to improve safety and reform prisons. Nevertheless, it remains important to reflect on the effectiveness of their current approach and the potential benefits of targeting scarce resources at those prisoners for whom there may be greatest impact. We have seen no evidence that the argument made by our predecessor about the potential for savings to be made by investing in more developmentally appropriate practices has been considered, which may be short-sighted. The restructuring of the Ministry and reconfiguration of HMPPS represented opportunities to re-think the strategic approach to young adults and to develop dedicated funding and governance arrangements which have the potential for significant improvement in outcomes that are urgently needed.

Cross-government work

27.Our predecessor Committee found that young people 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 by 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.38 While young adults continue to be at high risk of reoffending, support services which can act as protective factors, such as mental health, education and youth offending services, fall away at the age of 18. In addition, changes to societal norms have prolonged the age at which people reach key markers of adulthood i.e. becoming settled in relationships, employment and accommodation; they typically occur five to seven years later today than they did a few decades ago.39 The Committee recommended:

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.

28.There has been some progress on this. For those young adults who have been in local authority care, the Children and Social Work Act 2017 now extends entitlement to statutory support up to the age of 26. We consider this in the next chapter. In November, Dr Lee explained that cross-departmental work had been one of his priorities:

I have been having more meetings with other Departments, and we continue to try to build momentum within Government to recognise that if we are going to properly address reoffending, it is a cross-departmental challenge. The MOJ suffers from being done to, to a certain extent; it is at the bottom of the food chain.40

29.Since then, in March 2018, the Secretary of State announced plans to establish the Reducing Reoffending Taskforce in recognition that re-offending costs society £15 billion annually. He told us that “only by constructive cross-government working” will Government “be able to help ex-offenders secure employment, appropriate accommodation, access to treatment for drug addictions and support for their mental health issues.”41 We understand that the Taskforce has not yet met and were advised that further announcements would be made in due course.42

30.We welcome the Secretary of State’s recognition of the need for a cross-departmental approach to reducing reoffending. The Ministry should draw to the attention of the Reducing Reoffending Taskforce research demonstrating that young adulthood is a distinctive period of development and how this relates to desistance from crime. Having reviewed this, the Taskforce should, by 31 December 2018, develop a cross-departmental programme of action for those up to the age of 25 as a priority group. This should include commissioning work on the potential cross-departmental cost-benefits of adopting a coherent approach which explicitly reflects young adults’ developmental status and extends statutory support, provided to under-18s by a range of agencies, to people up to the age of 25.

19 HC169, para 24

20 HC169, para 29

21 HC 169, chapter 4

22 HC 169, para 138. See for example, the Centre for Mental Health and Nacro Beyond Youth Custody Programme

24 Q6 [Mr Spurr]

25 Letter from Dr Lee, 27 February 2018, p.4

26 Ibid. Letter from Rory Stewart to Chair, 21 May 2018. See also attached delivery plan for Young Offenders Board.

27 National Offender Management Service, Better Outcomes for Young Adult Men: Evidence Based Commissioning Principles, August 2015, London: NOMS; National Offender Management Service, Better Outcomes for Women Offenders, September 2015, London: NOMS.

28 HC 169, para 67

31 Q5 [Dr Lee]

33 Q16; Q2

36 HC 169, Paras 8–14

38 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. HC 169, Para 12.

39 HC 169, Para 10

41 Rt Hon David Gauke letter to Chair, Evidence session follow-up, March 2018

42 Ibid

Published: 20 June 2018