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20 Sep 2018

Formal sentencing principles for young adults would help judges and magistrates, new report suggests

Formal sentencing principles for young adults aged 18 to 25, similar to the Sentencing Council guidelines that are in place for children, would assist the courts and improve sentencing outcomes, a new report recommends today (Thursday 20 September).

Sentencing Young Adults: Making the case for sentencing principles for young adults presents research by the Howard League for Penal Reform, a founding member of the Transition to Adulthood (T2A) Alliance.

The report, which draws on Howard League participation work with young adults, sets out how principled guidelines would help judges and magistrates to understand young adults better, and provide a legal framework to achieve better sentencing decisions.

The report recommends that the principles should consider the relationship between immaturity and blameworthiness, capacity to change, and the impact of race and histories of care.

It considers how the welfare principle – the principle that, when a court is dealing with proceedings relating to a child, its primary consideration shall lie with the welfare of the child – might be extended to apply to young adults, in recognition that full maturity and all the attributes of adulthood are not magically conferred on young people on their 18th birthdays.

The Howard League has brought together an advisory group of experts to help draft sentencing principles for young adults, drawing on the charity’s legal and participation work and the growing knowledge base about the needs and characteristics of young people.

More than 140,000 young adults aged 18 to 24 were sentenced in criminal courts last year.

Imprisonment of young adults can have tragic consequences. Between 2006 and 2016, 164 young adults aged 18 to 24 died in custody, 136 of whom lost their lives through suicide.

Laura Janes, Legal Director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “The Howard League’s legal and participation work with young adults shows that sentencing is a significant criminal justice event that can have an enormous impact on their development and life chances.

“In spite of overwhelming evidence that young adults should be treated as a distinct group from older adults, the sentencing process, as it stands, does not sufficiently factor in the lessons from neuroscience, psychology and criminology.

“This report makes the case for formal sentencing principles for young adults that would enable judges and magistrates to make better-informed decisions, and prevent more young people from being swept into deeper currents of crime and despair.

“With the help of an advisory board, including experts and senior practitioners in the field, and in consultation with young adults who have experience of being sentenced, we are now developing principles that we hope will in due course be adopted by sentencers.”

Debbie Pippard, Deputy Chair of T2A, said: “This important report demonstrates the need to refer to the growing evidence base which shows that 18-25 year olds are a distinct group, with distinct needs that should be taken into account when sentencing.

“The report makes the case for sentencing principles for young adults to enable courts to make better decisions and a real difference to young lives.”

The report states that there is a growing consensus that young adults aged 18 to 25 should be treated as a distinct group from older adults, largely because they are still maturing.

Particularly compelling is the neurological and psychological evidence that development of the frontal lobes – the area of the brain that helps to regulate decision-making and the control of impulses that underpin criminal behaviour – does not cease until the age of about 25.

In terms of brain physiology, susceptibility to peer pressure appears to continue until at least the mid-twenties, and the brain continues to mature in this period. Such evidence has led to calls from senior paediatricians to redefine ‘adolescence’ as the period between ages 10 and 24, and to reframe laws, social policies and service systems accordingly.

There is also evidence that one of the prevailing characteristics of this age range is the differing rates of development within the group – maturation occurs at different rates between individuals. Determining factors are not well understood, but there is growing recognition that social contexts have a strong influence, including those likely to also be influencing offending behaviour.

Almost half of young men under the age of 21 who come into the contact with the criminal justice system have experience of the care system.

There is evidence of disproportionate levels of neurodisability among young adults in custody when compared to the general population, including higher rates of learning disability, traumatic brain injury and communication impairment.

The report states: “These distinct characteristics and experiences are often highly relevant to decision-making that leads to offending. The distinct phases of maturation occurring during young adulthood also give rise to different needs.”

Research suggests criminal justice interventions should adopt a developmental perspective, but as the report states: “[A]t present, neither the distinct characteristics nor needs of young adults are adequately factored into the sentencing exercise, increasing the likelihood of a custodial sentence.”

The report follows research by the Howard League published last year, which found that the age and maturity of young adult defendants were not sufficiently considered by the courts.

Researchers also discovered that where a young person’s immaturity was raised by court professionals, the courts were well placed to factor it in to achieve better outcomes – and more likely to do so if sentencing guidance encouraged it.

Notes to editors

  1. The Transition to Adulthood (T2A) Alliance is a broad coalition of 16 leading criminal justice, health and youth charities working to evidence and promote the need for a distinct and effective approach to young adults in the transition to adulthood, throughout the criminal justice process. Views of the T2A Alliance are not necessarily the views of every member of the alliance.
  1. The Howard League for Penal Reform is the oldest penal reform charity in the world and a member of the T2A Alliance. It is a national charity working for less crime, safer communities and fewer people in prison. 
  1. Sentencing Young Adults: Making the case for sentencing principles for young adults can be read online.
  1. The Howard League has brought together an advisory group of experts to help draft sentencing principles for young adults. Members of the board include:Andrew Ashworth QC (Emeritus Professor, University of Oxford);
    Dr Tim Bateman (University of Bedfordshire);
    Dr Louise Bowers (Forensic psychologist);
    Jo Cecil (Barrister, Garden Court Chambers);
    Dr Alexandra Cox (University of Essex);
    Dr Enys Delmage (Royal College of Psychiatrists);
    Janet Denman (Magistrate);
    Claire Dissington (Solicitor, Edward Fail, Bradshaw & Waterson);
    Cindy Doyle MacRae (In a personal capacity, but with significant experience in probation and youth justice);
    Edward Fitzgerald QC (Doughty Street Chambers);
    Francis Fitzgibbon QC (23 Essex Street);
    Dr Andrew Forrester (Royal College of Psychiatrists);
    Professor Nathan Hughes (University of Sheffield);
    Dr Shona Minson (University of Oxford);
    Dr Suzella Palmer (University of Bedfordshire);
    Professor Huw Williams (University of Exeter).


Rob Preece
Campaigns and Communications Manager
The Howard League for Penal Reform
Tel: +44 (0)20 7241 7880
Mobile: +44 (0)7714 604955

ISDN line available on 020 7923 4196 – uses a G722 system

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