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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

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

The voices of young adult defendants

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The Centre for Justice Innovation piloted a procedural fairness approach with young adult offenders in Magistrates' Courts.

The Centre for Justice Innovation has just (21 November 2018) published a new briefing entitled “The voices of young adult defendants“. Based on interviews with 21 young people between the ages of 18 and 24 with recent experience of attending magistrates’ court,  the aim was to learn about how they experienced court: their feelings and understanding of the process, as well as how they could be involved in reimagining it where necessary.

They kept saying ‘sentence’ which I thought meant prison, I didn’t understand my sentence; I didn’t know what I was getting.

Context

In the justice system, public trust is not just a nice-to-have. It is the basis of the system’s legitimacy and a foundation stone for people’s compliance with the law. It has been shown that in large part this trust comes from the basic components of procedural fairness: that people understand the process; feel they have been treated with respect; and have had their voices heard. Issues highlighted in the Lammy Review have added to the pressure on the justice system to ensure it is engaged with communities, and demonstrating transparency and accountability. 

As recognised by the Justice Select Committee inquiry into young adult offenders, there is strong evidence from a range of research disciplines that young adults are a distinct group with needs that are different both from children under 18 and adults older than 25.  While some aspects of justice system practice in England and Wales have done so, allocation within the court system continues to be driven purely by chronological age.

In the dock I struggled to focus because I felt more stressed, in the box I couldn’t hear properly. I was locked in a glass cage.

Findings

The Centre for Justice Innovation organised their findings under three headings: Understanding, Voice and Respect.

Understanding

Almost all the interviewees, including ones who had been to court before, were not sure what to expect before they turned up, were not able to follow proceedings as they happened, and some left the court still unsure what had happened and why. This left them feeling extremely frustrated since, although the court case was about them, they simply did not understand what had happened to them.

Voice

The issue that came up most consistently for young people, and which most animated them, was frustration at not feeling their voices had been heard adequately. “They don’t talk to you, they talk about you.” It can lead to suspicion that in individual cases people are actively manipulating the system against them, “I wasn’t allowed to speak at court and information was misinterpreted. They misinterpreted what I said.”

Respect

The Centre also found that defendants had varying perceptions of how respectful they felt the process was to them. Some noted positive experiences—“staff were polite”—while others felt they were treated with habitual neglect, “they don’t talk to you, they come and get you and then bring you back out again.”

I didn’t know if you had to wait for your solicitor or if they would find you.

Recommendations

In working with five magistrate court areas, the Centre developed a model of procedural fairness in court that could be tested and evaluated to improve these experiences. The model includes the following core features:
 

  • Providing better information to defendants before attending court, including preparing defendants for the opportunity for direct engagement with the bench;
  • Enhancing engagement during the hearing itself, for example, checking defendants’ understanding through the hearing and explaining the roles of those in the court room where appropriate;
  • Giving defendants an opportunity for direct engagement with the bench;
  • Following up after hearings to check understanding and next steps;
  • Supporting voluntary take-up of community services that are available locally to tackle wider needs that may be contributing to offending behaviour.

 

The Centre is currently lobbying the Ministry of Justice, HMCTS and HMPPS to give permission to the existing five local sites and new areas such as London who already wish to test out and evaluate this model of fairness in court.

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