Call for sentencing guidelines for young adults

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Call for sentencing guidelines for young adults

A constant watch cell at Aylesbury YOI. Pic: Andy Aitchison

Sentencing guidelines for young offenders aged between 18 years to 25 should be introduced in order to assist the courts and improve sentencing outcomes, according to a new report. Charlotte Hughes reports.

More than 140,000 young adults aged 18 to 24 were sentenced in criminal courts last year. In 2017, 23 per cent of magistrates and crown court cases in England and Wales related to young adults, aged between 18 and 24 years old. Almost half of young men under the age of 21 who come into the contact with the criminal justice system had experience of the care system. (Pic by Andy Aitchison, a constant watch cell at the Young Offenders Institution, Aylesbury)

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. It states that there is a growing consensus that young offenders should be treated differently by courts from adults as they are still maturing. However, the situation currently only allows ‘age/lack of maturity’ to be taken into account as a mitigating factor.

Laura Janes, legal director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said their work has shown that sentencing is ‘a significant criminal justice event that can have an enormous impact on their development and life chances’. Janes continued:

‘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.’

Between 2006 and 2016, 164 young adults aged 18 to 24 died in custody, 136 of whom lost their lives through suicide. Janes added that it was hoped that the formal sentencing principles, similar to the Sentencing Council guidelines that are in place for children, would ultimately ‘prevent more young people from being swept into deeper currents of crime and despair’.

The report references research which states that frontal lobes – the area of the brain that helps to regulate decision-making and the control of impulses that underpin criminal behaviour – do not stop developing until of about 25 years of age. Susceptibility to peer pressure also continues until the mid-twenties. Senior paediatricians have recently redefined adolescence as a period from ten to 24 years of age.

The report, which was also supprted by the Barrow Cadbury Trust, said young adults face an increased risk of exposure to the criminal justice system compared with older adults, raising the risk of adverse outcomes and increased likelihood of reoffending, but are not afforded the protections given to children, despite their distinctive needs.

Drawing on Howard League participation work with young adults, it further 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. It recommends that the principles should consider the relationship between immaturity and blameworthiness, capacity to change, and the impact of race and histories of care.

There is also 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.

‘These distinct characteristics and experiences are often highly relevant to decision-making that leads to offending,’ the report says. ‘The distinct phases of maturation occurring during young adulthood also give rise to different needs.’ It argues that the failure to consider these factors increases 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. The research also stated that courts are more than capable of factoring issues such as maturity into decision making but are less likely to do so in the absence of clear and firm guidance.

It also recommends that the welfare principle considered when a court is dealing with proceedings relating to a child – that the court’s 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 eighteenth birthdays.

The Howard League has brought together an advisory group of experts to help draft sentencing principles for young adults comprising lawyers, academics, a magistrate, a forensic psychologist, two members of Royal College of Psychiatrists and a member with experience in probation and youth justice.

Debbie Pippard, deputy chair of T2A, pointed to ‘the growing evidence base’ showing that 18- to 25-year-olds were ‘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,’ she said.