How to build fairer courts for young adults

Ben Estep

Today’s report from the Justice Select Committee argues that “there is a strong case for a distinct approach to the treatment of young adults in the criminal justice system,” including the testing of young adult courts.

The Committee’s support chimes with what we’ve heard from practitioners around the country. For the last several months, we’ve been working with a number of areas to explore practical options with the potential to make the court process more procedurally fair for young adults. These conversations have uncovered a strong degree of interest and enthusiasm for scoping a new approach. The Committee’s encouragement is a valuable addition to the local multi-agency backing these sites already enjoy.

As the report notes, there are a number of promising approaches that local areas could enact “without changing the legislative framework.” Our feasibility report outlines a number of these, including use of specialist magistrates trained in engagement, adapted language and communication to encourage comprehension, and encouragement of family involvement. We believe that adaptations like these – and others proposed by local areas in response to their own particular context – hold out the prospect of increasing perceptions of procedural fairness and improving rehabilitation for this distinct population.

As part of the project, we have also heard directly from justice system-involved young adults themselves. This has served to reiterate what we suspected about their experience of the adult court process – it can be difficult to follow, with complex and technical language; intimidating, with an uncomfortably formal setting; and lacking in opportunity for direct engagement. This last point – engagement – has come across most strongly in our work thus far. The frustrations and feelings of unfairness expressed to us by young adults have explicitly not been about the sentences they receive but because they do not feel they have a voice in the process, and consequently that they are not fully a part of it. This matters: there is clear evidence that how decisions in court are made and how the process feels to participants impacts their willingness to accept decisions, comply with court orders, and to obey the law in the future.

The Committee report also picks up on the fact that many or most of the tailored approaches that could comprise young adult court pilots are cost-neutral. For those areas that decide to proceed with a pilot, and accompanying independent evaluation, changes will involve adapting practice and some reconfiguration of existing resources, but not necessarily additional money. Given this, the potential for improved outcomes, and the Committee’s support, we are optimistic that our courts can provide a better response to offending by young adults, and make a positive difference both to their lives and to our communities.