Young minds, big decisions
A new report from Fair Trials published yesterday (6 October 2022), Young minds, big decisions, reveals that young people are being placed under intense pressure to plead guilty to crimes without fully understanding the life-changing consequences of their decision. In some cases, young people are given as little as 20 to 30 minutes to decide whether or not to plead guilty.
The majority of people accused of crimes in England & Wales are not tried in court. They plead guilty to their offences and are sentenced after waiving their right to present their defence, as well as a wide range of other fair trial rights. A significant proportion of these people are young adults, aged between 18 and 24, who make up about a third of criminal cases in England & Wales.
While young adults are legally treated as adults in criminal proceedings, research has shown that they share many neuropsychological characteristics as children, which often affect their decision-making processes and capabilities. Previous studies have shown that children are more likely to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit, on account of their increased susceptibility to incentives to plead guilty, and the additional challenges they face understanding their rights and making complex decisions.
Between 2021 and 2022, Fair Trials conducted research to highlight the experiences of people who have made plea decisions as young adults. Gathering testimonies from individuals serving prison sentences, and through conversations with people who had been criminal defendants as young adults, researchers sought to understand how young adults made their decisions, what support they received to help them make their choices, and the consequences of their pleas.
People interviewed for this study painted a dire picture of the criminal justice system. They described a system that was failing to treat young people with the respect and humanity they deserve. Their accounts detail a system that is not only failing to equip young adults with the knowledge and information to make the best decisions for their cases and inducing them to plead guilty to offences they did not commit, but they also highlight broader systemic failures that impeded justice and fairness for defendants, irrespective of age or experience. The main challenges identified through this research include:
Motivation for Guilty Pleas
The testimonies from people who made guilty pleas as young adults confirm existing research that suggests that guilty pleas are often motivated by potential sentence or charge reductions. However, there was little indication that long-term consequences of pleading guilty played a major role in the decision-making process. It was apparent that most decisions prioritised immediate outcomes, particularly with regard to their criminal cases, and even people who did consider the impact of their decisions, not just on themselves but also on others that were close to them, seemed to focus on the short-term benefits of guilty pleas.
Inadequate Support and Assistance
The general impression given by people involved in this research was the lack of support and assistance to make an informed decision about their pleas. Most of them reported negative experiences of working with their defence lawyers, who they felt unable to trust or depend on for reliable advice and support. Many chose to rely instead on the advice of other defendants and fellow prisoners, who they believed to be a more reliable source of support.
Lack of Information and Advice
It is clear that many young people are not given adequate information to make their decisions on how to plead, or, where they are given such information, it is not provided in a way that it is easily understood. Many individuals felt that the pros and cons of entering a ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’ plea were not properly explained to them, including the impact that such decisions could have on their rights, and that they were given inaccurate or misleading advice about the potential outcomes of their cases. This often led them to make decisions that they later regretted.
Unexpected Consequences of Guilty Pleas
The lack of sufficient time, information, and support given to people to help them make their decisions about their pleas meant that in many cases, young people who pleaded guilty only found about the true implications of their decisions much later on. This included negative impacts on their career prospects and ambitions, as well as their rights and legal status. However, it was also clear from accounts given by certain people that pleading guilty could seriously damage their relationship with
the legal system, and affect their outcomes in criminal justice proceedings in the future.
Insufficient Support for Health Conditions and Disabilities
Several people expressed concerns that young people who faced additional communication challenges on account of their health conditions, characteristics, or disabilities, were being let down by the justice system, and that they were not receiving the support they needed to make informed decisions regarding their pleas.
Transitioning from Childhood to Adulthood
Several people mentioned that their experiences of the criminal justice stared even before their teenage years with little to no signs that they were treated more fairly, or even differently as children.
Fair Trials makes a number of key recommendations including:
- The importance of improving the quality of legal assistance by building the capacity and capabilities of legal professionals to provide age appropriate assistance.
- Reviewing the Sentencing Guidelines to remove incentives for early guilty pleas and encourage more carefully informed decision-making.
- A much stronger emphasis on measures that are designed to identify and address the root causes of ‘criminal’ behaviour that are tailored to individual circumstances.
Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the header image in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.