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18 Jul 2017

New report calls on Sentencing Council to develop formal sentencing principles for young adults

The Sentencing Council should work towards developing formal sentencing principles for young adults, similar to the principles that are in place for children, a report published by the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Transition to Adulthood (T2A) Alliance recommends today (Tuesday 18 July).

The report, Judging Maturity: Exploring the role of maturity in the sentencing of young adults, presents research by the Howard League, the world’s oldest penal reform charity and a founding member of the T2A Alliance.

The Howard League analysed 174 court judgments in cases involving young adults, focusing on how judges considered the concept of maturity. The findings suggest that the age and maturity of young adult defendants are not sufficiently considered by the courts at present. However, the research also shows that where a young adult’s immaturity is raised by court professionals, the courts are well placed to factor it in to achieve better outcomes – and more likely to do so if sentencing guidance encourages it.

There is substantial evidence that young adults – aged 18 to 25 – should be treated as a distinct group from older adults, largely because they are still maturing – neuroscience research has proven that brain development continues well into the mid-20s. Reaching adulthood is a process, not an event, and the key markers of adulthood, such as independent living, employment and establishing relationships, happen at different times for different young people.

Young adults are more likely to be caught up in the criminal justice system than older adults. They face significant difficulties coping in prison, where both the suicide rate and violence rates are higher among their age group than among the prison population as a whole, and they have higher reconviction rates following release than older adults. Between 2006 and 2016, 164 people aged 18 to 24 died in custody, including 136 who died by suicide.

While there is a wealth of guidance and case law concerning the sentencing of children, there is no set of principles to ensure that judges take a tailored approach to sentencing young adults. Tens of thousands of young adults who appear before the courts for sentencing each year would benefit from a distinct approach.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “The evidence that young adults require a distinct approach is now overwhelming.

“This important research shows that the courts are well placed to tailor their approach to meet the needs of young adults but currently have insufficient guidance in order to apply the evidence on developmental maturity in a consistent way.

“Clear, principled guidance could make a real difference to the outcomes for young adults facing sentence.”

Debbie Pippard, Vice Chair of the T2A Alliance: “A decade of research into effective approaches for 18-25 year olds has shown that a distinct approach gets better outcomes than treating them the same as older adults.

“Taking account of their maturity as well as their specific needs leads to lower reoffending rates and better social outcomes, such as increased employment.

“This means young adults who have made a mistake are more likely to grow out of crime. They can make amends in a way that benefits society and themselves, reducing the number of future victims and the cost to the public purse.”

The judgments, most of which were delivered during the financial year 2015-16, comprised 118 sentence appeals; 33 Attorney General references; and 23 minimum term reviews.

The charity’s research found that, in almost half of all the sentence appeal cases, neither age nor maturity was considered.

Age has long been accepted as a mitigating factor in sentencing, both in terms of being very young and also very old. More recently, the concept of lack of maturity has been introduced into formal sentencing guidance as a mitigating factor. This does not require a court to assess maturity at the point of sentence, however; maturity can only be considered if raised in mitigation on behalf of the young person.

The Howard League’s analysis of court judgments found that the inclusion of age and/or lack of maturity in Sentencing Council guidance had not made a significant difference as to whether or not maturity was considered.

However, where the relevant sentencing guideline included age and/or lack of maturity, and the court considered that factor, it was more likely to result in a reduction in the sentence on appeal.

The Howard League’s research suggests that professionals need to be encouraged to bring these factors to the court’s attention and sentencers need to be encouraged to consider these factors of their own will. It also indicates that guidelines can make a positive difference and empower sentencers to reduce sentences on account of lack of maturity and/or age.

In a report published last year, the Justice Committee found that research from a range of disciplines strongly supported the view that young adults are a distinct group with needs that are different both from children under 18 and adults older than 25.

The report states: “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.”

The Justice Committee concluded that young adults were still developing neurologically up to the age of 25 and had a high prevalence of atypical brain development.

The report states: “These both 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. Dealing effectively with young adults while the brain is still developing is crucial for them in making successful transitions to a crime-free adulthood. They typically commit a high volume of crimes and have high rates of reoffending and breach, yet they are the most likely age group to stop offending as they ‘grow out of crime’.

“Flawed interventions that do not recognise young adults’ maturity can slow desistance and extend the period of involvement in the system.”

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.
  2. 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.
  3. Judging Maturity: Exploring the role of maturity in the sentencing of young adults can be read online.
  4. The Justice Committee report, The treatment of young adults in the criminal justice system, can be read online.


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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