Originally published in the Guardian.
Young adults should be given special treatment in court because they are immature and need help understanding proceedings, according to a report by an influential legal reform group.
The call for a fresh approach for 18- to 24-year-olds comes from the Centre for Justice Innovation as the sharp rise in knife crime highlights the criminal justice system’s problems in dealing with that age group.
The report, A Fairer Way, highlights the fact that brain development continues well into young adulthood. “Impulse control, reasoning, and decision-making capabilities are in formation until the mid-twenties,” the report says, citing medical studies.
“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 twenties can influence antisocial decision-making among young adults.”
Young adults are heavily overrepresented in crime figures and have a high reoffending rate: 75% of young adults in England and Wales released from prison are.
The report also argues that changes to “societal norms” have extended the age at which people reach key markers of adulthood: they typically occur five to seven years later than a few decades ago.
In order to help young adults through magistrates’ court hearings, the Centre for Justice Innovation has been working with magistrates’ courts and agencies in five areas: Coventry, Ipswich, Leicester, Northampton and Swansea.
It has developed a model that involves providing better information to young adults before court, grouping their hearings into a nominated sitting each week and holding pre-court meetings to identify any communication needs.
Other measures include preparing young adults for direct engagement with magistrates, ensuring probation reports are completed that take maturity into account and explaining the roles of people in the courtroom.
The report says there should also be a follow-up after hearings and support to help community services tackle wider needs that may be contributing to offending behaviour.
The scheme is backed by the police and crime commissioners of Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, the West Midlands and south Wales. Stephen Mold, the Northamptonshire commissioner, said: “Early intervention will present these young people with the opportunity to change their behaviour before their pattern of offending becomes more deeply rooted. There is a high degree of local enthusiasm in each of our areas for the pilots and much thought has been put into how the pilots could work in practice.”
Phil Bowen, director of the Centre for Justice Innovation, said: “At the moment, people are coming out of court and feeling unclear about what has happened to them.”
The centre has worked closely with the Ministry of Justice before, promoting US-style problem-solving courts where judges continue to review defendants’ progress after conviction – an initiative supported by the former justice secretary Michael Gove.
There is growing interest in the way young adults are dealt with by the courts. Last year, a government-backed review into racial bias in the criminal justice system, led by the Labour MP David Lammy, said allowances should be made for younger defendants’ immaturity and their criminal records sealed to help former offenders find work.
Lammy backed a West Midlands scheme, Operation Turning Point, in which suspects enter rehabilitation programmes without having to admit guilt; their charges are dropped if they complete their work.
Since 2012, judges have been required under Sentencing Council guidelines to take “lack of maturity” into consideration as a mitigating factor when dealing with certain offences.