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Young adult offenders: urgent need for change
Justice Committee: Dealing effectively with young adults while the brain is still developing is crucial for successful transitions to a crime-free adulthood

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The treatment of young adults in the criminal justice system

Dealing effectively with young adults while the brain is still developing is crucial for them in making successful transitions to a crime-free adulthood

That’s the headline conclusion of a new (26 October 2016) report by the Justice Committee.

Step change in policy and practice needed

The report says that research from a range of disciplines strongly supports the view that young adults are a distinct group with needs that are different both from children under 18 and adults older than 25, underpinned by the developmental maturation process that takes place in this age group. In the context of the criminal justice system this is important as young people who commit crime typically stop doing so by their mid-20s.

Those 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 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.

A distinct approach

The report argues that there is a strong case for a distinct approach to the treatment of young adults in the criminal justice system:

Young adults are still developing neurologically up to the age of 25. They have a high prevalence of atypical brain development. Rates of learning disability, communication impairment and autistic spectrum disorder are ten times as high as they are among young people in the general population, and there is a high level of Acquired Brain Injury – which, according to estimates by the Centre for Mental Health, can increase the likelihood of crime by 50%.

These factors impact on criminal behaviour and have implications for the appropriate treatment of young adults by the criminal justice system as they are more challenging to manage, harder to engage, and tend to have poorer outcomes.

For young adults with neuro-disabilities maturity may be significantly hindered or delayed. Flawed interventions that do not recognise young adults’ maturity can slow desistance and extend the period of involvement in the system.

Missed opportunities

Committee Chair Bob Neill said:

The approach to young adults in the criminal justice system must be based on a robust assessment of the evidence. If not, it will continue to fail, with so many missed opportunities to transform lives, repair harm, lower costs, and reduce crime.

Key statistics

The number of young adults in the criminal justice system, mostly men, has fallen in recent years. But adults under 25 representing 10% of the general population, account for 30-40% of criminal caseload, including policing time, those supervised by probation, and prison entrants. They also have the highest reconviction rate, with 75% reconvicted within two years of release. Young adults serving community sentences have equally poor outcomes: they have the highest breach rates.

The worst outcomes are typically for young black and Muslim men and care leavers, each of whom are over-represented in the system. Nearly half of young men and two thirds of young women in custody aged between 16 and 21 have recently been in care; many have a history of being exposed to violence, including in the home, abuse, neglect, bereavement and criminal behaviour.



Much of the recent research in this area derives from a substantial programme supported by the Barrow Cadbury Trust, which has established and supported the Transition to Adulthood Alliance (T2A), a coalition of 12 criminal justice, health and youth organisations. The Committee heard from T2A that there is an irrefutable body of evidence from advances in behavioural neuroscience that the typical male adult brain is not fully formed until the mid-twenties.

The evidence supporting the view that young adults have distinct needs and outcomes is founded on three main bodies of research: criminology, neurology and psychology. The Committee heard evidence from experts in each of these fields.

Committee Chair Bob Neill said:

Research findings in criminology, psychology and neurology indicate the need for a distinctive approach. There is overwhelming enthusiasm for change within the sector. And yet the Government has been hesitant to act. We do not understand why it has not been more courageous, and has hidden behind outdated legislation. So we have used the evidence we received to develop a blueprint for change, which we expect the Government to adopt as part of their forthcoming reform plan.


Blueprint for change

The main points in the Committee’s blueprint include:

  • Overarching principles to inform a step-change in policy and practice in relation to young adults and to underpin a strategic approach “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” (para 142)
  • Understanding risks and needs including “through a policy of universal screening by prisons and probation services for mental health needs, neuro-developmental disorders, maturity and neuro-psychological impairment” (para 143)
  • A distinct approach with specialist staff in prison and probation services and other criminal justice professionals dealing with young adults underpinned by more in-depth training (para 144)
  • Building the evidence base for the treatment of young adult offenders, in part through expanding the availability of promising programmes and robustly evaluating them, and examination by the Ministry of Justice of whether the case can be made for investment to facilitate interventions aimed at young adults, including by the creation of an equivalent to the pupil premium for prisons and Community Rehabilitation Companies (para 146)
  • Cross-departmental reform to extend statutory support provided to under-18s by a range of agencies to people up to the age of 25, and consideration of legislative change to recognise the developmental status of young adults (para 147 and 148)
  • Courts and sentencing: further work to evaluate the impact of maturity as a mitigating factor in sentencing and the inclusion of age and maturity in the Code for Crown Prosecutors, and the testing of young adult courts (para 150 and 152)
  • Prisons: use of the forthcoming prison reform bill to extend for those up to the age of 25 the sentence of detention in a young offender institution for 18 to 20 year olds, together with testing various models of ways of holding young adults in custodial institutions, revision of the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme, and other measures to reduce violence in prisons (para 154 and 155).

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