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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

MPs criticise government’s approach to young adult offenders

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While the 18-25 age group is one that offends the most, young adults have the greatest potential to make the transition to a crime-free adulthood while the brain is still developing.

Justice Committee keeps up pressure

Earlier this week (20 June 2018), the House of Commons Justice Committee (@CommonsJustice) published a new report criticising the government’s “narrow approach” to dealing with young adults in the justice system.

The Committee previously published a report on the treatment of young adults aged 18 to 25 in the criminal justice system in October 2016. That 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.

The current Committee agreed that the government response was disappointing and did not pay sufficient attention to the strength of the evidence for more significant change. It therefore took expert evidence again and engaged in correspondence with the Ministry to examine the rationale and efficacy of their approach.

The Committee produced this new report because it was frustrated by the MoJ’s refusal to follow the scientific evidence and because they believed that:

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.

 

The report

The report reviews 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 the Committee acknowledges that it has some sympathy for these constraints, it urges the MoJ to reflect on the potential benefits of targeting scarce resources at those prisoners for whom there may be greatest impact.

The Committee makes 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. It also welcomes the creation of a probation service board to oversee work on young offenders and young adults, which the Committee would like to see replicated for prisons.

The report includes a detailed review of 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. The Committee declares itself 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  how the Ministry is assessing the impact of its approach, so the Committee calls on MoJ to specify the measures by which they intend to monitor improvement in outcomes for young adults in custody and in the community.

The Justice Committee was also disappointed to find limited progress on addressing gaps in the evidence base for effective practice with young adults, criticising the lack of progress on specific pieces of research mentioned in the Government’s response, or on the previous Committee’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.

The Committee does welcome progress 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 care leavers.

The Committee also praises the work of the Sentencing Council and the Crown Prosecution Service in reviewing their guidance in the light of the evidence on maturity. and set our clearly the hope of piloting young adult courts.

Finally, the Committee calls on the Ministry to take decisive action on more fundamental reform, arguing strongly for a new framework for the disclosure of criminal records for children and young adults.

In addition, the Committee also set out its expectation that prison and probation services will develop 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.

Conclusion

The combined pressures of year-on-year budget reductions, both prison and probation services in crisis and no effective leadership through multiple changes of Justice Secretary means that the MoJ is struggling to perform on a number of fronts.

We are fortunate to have a Justice Committee so committed to holding the department to account and who are prepared to continue pushing on key areas such as a differential approach to young adult offenders, which is so strongly evidenced in the research.

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