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2 Jul 2015

You can’t put a number on it: New report explores maturity for young adults in the criminal justice system

The criminal justice system is failing to support young adults adequately by not offering a distinct approach that recognises their development and varying levels of maturity, finds a report published by the Transition to Adulthood (T2A) Alliance and the Howard League for Penal Reform.

The report is published only a day after a government review from Lord Harris of Haringey into the deaths of young adults in custody, which found that maturity should be a primary consideration in making decisions relating to young people in the criminal justice system.

You can’t put a number on it draws on participation work from the Howard League, involving over 80 18-24 year-olds with experience of the criminal justice system from across England and Wales.

Young people told the Howard League that everyone matures at a different rate and that maturity has little to do with age or legal status. The criminal justice system should be better at giving young people responsibility so they can grow and develop, including help with interpersonal and practical life skills.

A particular concern raised by many young people was that of the so-called ‘paper self’, the identity constructed for them by the criminal justice system at a time when they are still finding out who they are. Bureaucratic assessments contained within pre-sentence reports, sentencing remarks, police records, Thinking Skills Programme (TSP) reports, hostel records or on Offenders Assessments (OASys) in prison can become the basis for all professional interaction with young people – even when such assessments contradict each other or are in effect no longer accurate because the young person is maturing within the system.

The issue of transition to adulthood at 18 was raised consistently, with particular concerns around the levels of support received as children that disappear at the same time as responsibilities as adults increase. There needs to be consistent professional support to help young people navigate the criminal justice system, the law and transitions between different services.

Other recommendations echo T2A’s call for young adults to be sentenced by maturity and level of understanding rather than numerical age. If the prison system remains structured around age, then at the very least the prisons should be offering more support when young people move between under-18, 18-21 and adult prisons.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: All too often the criminal justice system puts young people’s lives on pause, stalling their maturation and indeed preventing them from reaching responsible adulthood. Yesterday saw a hugely important report published by the Harris Review into the self-inflicted deaths of young people in custody. Today we publish a report that speaks to much of the issues that Lord Harris raised in his findings to the Ministry of Justice. This report shows that a better understanding of how young people mature is key to criminal justice reform with this age group. More nuanced approaches at every stage of the criminal justice system would recognise both the extraordinary resilience that these young people possess while also offering the support they need to become fully responsible adults.”

Debbie Pippard, Vice Chair of T2A, said: “This report shows just how crucial it is to engage and involve young adults to capture their personal experiences of the criminal justice system. Their testimonies and contributions go a long way towards illustrating the difficulties they face and the importance of providing tailored and customised guidance and support for this age group.”

Notes to editors

  1. The Howard League for Penal Reform is the oldest penal reform charity in the world. It is a national charity working for less crime, safer communities and fewer people in prison.
  2. The report was funded by the Barrow Cadbury Trust as part of the work of the Transition to Adulthood (T2A) Alliance – a broad coalition of 13 leading criminal justice, health and youth charities – working to evidence and promote the need for a distinct and effective approach to young adults (18-24 year olds) in the transition to adulthood, through the criminal justice process.
  3. The report can be downloaded here.
  4. The Harris Review can be downloaded here.


Rob Preece
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