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Young people in transition in the criminal justice system
AYJ research highlights a “steep cliff edge” at 18 during which support drops off, leaving young people at risk of continued involvement in crime

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Evidence review

The Alliance for Youth Justice has just (April 2023) published an evidence review summarising the policy context and existing evidence on young people turning 18 in the criminal justice system. The review is part of a three-year project on transition into adulthood funded by the Barrow Cadbury Trust and explores this transition via the project’s three main themes: racial injustice, safeguarding and exploitation, and custody. It highlights a “steep cliff edge” at 18 during which support drops off, exacerbating vulnerabilities and leaving young people at risk of continued involvement in crime.


Young people continue to mature into at least their mid-twenties, impacting their behaviour and needs, and necessitating a distinct criminal justice response. Yet policy and practice for older children and young adults often fails to recognise this. Despite gaps in the literature, it is resoundingly clear that young people turning 18 while in contact with the justice system face a steep cliff edge, leaving them at risk of harm and continued contact with the criminal justice system.

As young people transition into adulthood and move from Youth Offending Teams to Probation, how they are supported changes significantly. Key relationships are lost, contact levels drop, resources and support reduces, and the overall ethos switches from a focus on welfare to enforcement. Transfers are not smooth, information is not picked up, and Probation services may not be tailored to young adults.

This is far from the only transition impacting young people at this time. Young people in the justice system are highly vulnerable with prevalent experiences of violence, abuse, mental ill-health, substance misuse, and the care system. As they turn 18 many services change or fall away at the same time. Racially minoritised young people, girls, and neurodiverse young people face significant structural disadvantages, concerning outcomes, and particularly destabilising transitions. A holistic and intersectional view of transition must therefore be taken. To stop young people falling through gaps at 18, lessons should be learnt from examples at home and abroad of continuing support to 25.


As young people in custody transition into adulthood, they face a transfer from the children’s secure estate into adult custody. Although the children’s secure estate faces many significant challenges, the difference between the children’s estate and the adult estate is stark and unsettling. Time out of cell plummets, consequences are harsher, restraint procedures are more severe, resourcing significantly decreases, and involvement of professionals and support services may drop off. Outcomes for young adults in custody are very concerning and there is little, if any, distinction between their treatment and older adults.

There is a lack of coherence around decisions on which establishment young people transition to, and young people aren’t being placed depending on where their needs can best be met. As transfers occur, information about young people’s vulnerabilities and needs may be lost. Particular difficulties are faced around resettlement for young adults who entered custody as children, settling into newly adult lives, with many services changing at once.


Many children and young people in the justice system are at risk of harms such as criminal exploitation, that can lead to their involvement in crime. This positions young people between safeguarding and criminal justice systems, which are too often failing to recognise and appropriately respond to victimisation, particularly as children turn 18 and become young adults. Young people becoming care leavers are especially vulnerable at this time.

Neither the children’s nor adult’s safeguarding systems have been built for the distinct needs of older children and young adults, and upon approaching and turning 18, young people who have been accessing support tend to see this withdrawn, despite harms continuing. Failures to safeguard young people as they transition into adulthood leave them at risk of harm and contact with the justice system.

Children and young adults coming to the attention of the justice system as a result of exploitation are being criminalised. As children affected by criminal exploitation grow up, and particularly as they legally become adults, perceptions shift from them being a ‘victim’ to a ‘perpetrator’. Mechanisms like the National Referral Mechanism and modern slavery legislation that should protect victims from unfair prosecution are often failing to do so.

Racial injustice

Racial disparities in the criminal justice system and wider society mean racially minoritised children are more likely to be criminalised and receive longer sentences and thus are disproportionately likely to experience the transition from youth to adult justice systems. Racial inequalities experienced in childhood mean they may be more likely to transition from a point of greater vulnerability, and can also leave racially minoritised young adults facing additional barriers to desistance.
Racially minoritised young people are less likely to be appropriately supported through the transition to adulthood, as:

  • Adultification bias affects perceptions of culpability and vulnerability, impacting the approach of services and the support that is offered
  • A lack of trust and confidence in the justice system impacts young people’s engagement
  • Services lack cultural competency and support offered may not be suitable for the specific needs of racially minoritised young people
  • Specialist voluntary and community sector organisations, that can play a key role in addressing these shortcomings and providing tailored support, are often not available

Racially minoritised young people may therefore see the effects of the cliff edge at 18 compounded by deficits in support before, during, and after transition, which may leave them more vulnerable to continued contact with the criminal justice system.


Thanks to Clem Onojeghuo for kind permission to use the header image in this post which was previously published on Unsplash.

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