July 19 2024
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New inquiry into the treatment of young adult offenders in the criminal justice system

New inquiry into the treatment of young adult offenders in the criminal justice system

Pic: Andy Aitchison

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Photographs by Andy Aitchison at PRISONiMAGE, (@prisonimage)

Photographs by Andy Aitchison at PRISONiMAGE, (@prisonimage)

I am pleased to announce that one of the two inquiries that the Justice Select Committee has launched this week to begin its work for this Parliament will examine the treatment of young adults in the criminal justice system. The number of young adults in custody is falling, partly because there are fewer younger offenders entering the criminal justice system and being sentenced to custody. Nevertheless, those that remain in the custodial estate have become more challenging to manage in several respects.

Very shortly after my election as Chair of the Committee Lord Harris of Haringey published his thought-provoking report Changing Prisons, Saving Lives  to conclude his independent review into self-inflicted deaths in custody of young adults.

  • This is a guest blog by Bob Neill MP, Chair of the Justice Select Committee (you can follow the work of the committee on Twitter, @commonsjustice). It was originally posted on www.russellwebster.com (here
  • You can read Lord Harris on his report on www.thejusticegap.com (here)
  • Photograph by Andy Aitchison at PRISONiMAGE, @prisonimage)

Lord Harris made recommendations to encourage the diversion of more young people from custody as well as to improve the custody system for those who remain in it, and concluded that action on these should be an urgent priority:

‘Delaying action until the resource position is easier is not an option. Unless progress is made on the proposals that we have made, young people will continue to die unnecessarily in our prisons and we will continue to waste countless millions of pounds in failing to rehabilitate those who could be rehabilitated, in locking up those for whom a non-prison option would be more appropriate, and in failing to intervene early enough to prevent people from entering the criminal justice system in the first place.’

I asked the Secretary of State for Justice, Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, for his thoughts on the implications of the Harris Review when he appeared before the Committee for the first time last week. He replied:

‘Lord Harris’s report was, in the best sense of the word, difficult reading, as was the report yesterday by Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons. We have significant problems in our prisons at the moment. You cannot look at the number of suicides and self-inflicted injuries or at the level of violence overall in the prison estate and feel anything other than concern about the conditions in which prison officers have to work and the conditions in which offenders are kept.’

The annual report of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons was published last week. That report made a number of observations about young adults in custody. It said that cohort was over-represented in statistics on violence, adjudications and use of force, but the Inspectorate found there was little or no action to understand, address and manage this population. It also found that young adults tend to spend more time than other prisoners locked in their cells and as a result have poorer outcomes in relation to access to purposeful activity like education and training.

Consecutive governments have proposed abolishing sentences to detention in a young offenders’ institution for 18-20 year olds. The last Government issued a consultation proposing this in November 2013 entitled Transforming the Management of Young Adults in Custody. The Government made no response to this consultation pending the findings of the Harris Review.

In response to a further question by my committee colleague, Christina Rees MP, about whether the Secretary of State accepted particular recommendations, he said:

‘There are one or two aspects of Lord Harris’s report that I questioned and have questioned officials about. I wondered whether his reasoning was absolutely right in every regard, but I do think overall that the report was fair and helpful. As I have said, it was difficult reading in the best sense of the word. But I cannot commit to any of those yet, because I am reflecting both on his recommendations and on some other concerns that I have about the prison system that I want the ministerial team and the leadership of NOMS to address before I can come down firmly in favour of particular changes.’

My colleagues on the Justice Committee and I decided that it was timely to inquire into the treatment of young adults both in prison and—given the broad- ranging nature of the recommendations of the Harris Review—in other parts of the criminal justice system. Our remit does not extend to the police—the oversight of which is the responsibility of the Home Affairs Committee—therefore for the purposes of our inquiry the criminal justice system is taken to include the Crown Prosecution Service, the courts, the sentencing framework, youth offending teams, probation services and prisons. See below for our full terms of reference and guidance on submitting evidence, which is also available on my committee’s webpages.

Recent advances in behaviour and neuroscience research indicate that brain development continues well into the 20s, meaning that young adults have more psychosocial similarities to children than to older adults. In their report Maturity, Young Adults and Criminal Justice the Transition to Adulthood Alliance state that one of the consequences of this prolonged period of development and maturation of the brain is that ‘temperance (evaluating consequences of actions, limiting impulsivity and risk-taking is a significant maturity factor that continues to influence anti-social decision-making among young adults’.

On this subject Lord Harris concluded:

‘[g]iven the current understanding of maturity and human development, and brain development in particular, we feel it no longer makes sense to expect that young adults, especially when they are distinctly vulnerable, should be sentenced as an adult solely on the basis of their age.’

Some steps have been taken to do this. The Sentencing Council now includes lack of maturity as a mitigating factor in its sentencing guidelines and the Code for Crown Prosecutors also makes reference to it. Accordingly, my colleagues and I also wish to examine the evidence on what might constitute more effective or appropriate treatment of young adults throughout the criminal justice process and review the impact of guidance to sentencers and prosecutors which advises that they consider the maturity of the offender in their decisions.


Our inquiry’s terms of reference

We welcome submissions by 30 September 2015 addressing this subject, with particular reference to the following points:

  1. The nature and effectiveness of the Ministry of Justice’s strategy and governance structures for dealing with young adult offenders.
  2. The suitability of current provision for young adult offenders i) in the community and ii) in custody, including the extent to which there is distinct provision currently, and addressing the following questions:
  • What is the evidence on how outcomes across a range of measures for young adult offenders compare with other offenders?
  • Taking into account the findings of the Harris Review, what measures should be prioritised in addressing levels of suicide, self-harm, and violence amongst young adult offenders currently held in custody?
  • What impact have the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms had on the transition between youth offending teams and probation services?
  1. The Harris Review advocated a distinct approach to young adult offenders. Is this desirable? If so, what would this entail i) in the community and ii) in custody? If not, why not? Please also address the following questions:
  • Should sentence to detention in a young offender institution for 18-20 year old offenders be abolished? If so, what should replace it?
  • The Harris Review concluded that all young adults in prison are vulnerable and that the experience of being in prison is particularly damaging to them as they are developing. Do you agree?
  • The Harris Review recommended that more young adults should be diverted from custody and from the criminal justice system. Is it appropriate to seek to divert more young adults from custody and the criminal justice system, and if so, how would this best be achieved?
  1. What legislative or other barriers are there to more appropriate practices for young adult offenders and how could these be overcome?
  2. What impact, if any, has the introduction of maturity as a mitigating factor in sentencing decisions had on sentencing practice for young adults? Do sentencers have sufficient information to make assessments of maturity?
  3. What impact, if any, has the inclusion of the concept of maturity in guidance for assessing culpability (in the Code of Conduct for the Crown Prosecution Service) had on prosecution decisions? Do prosecutors have sufficient information to make such assessments?
  4. How could a criminal justice system which would treat young adults on the basis of maturity rather than age operate in practice?


Please note that the Committee may not investigate or intervene in individual cases. Submissions may make reference to individual cases for illustrative purposes, provided they are not the subject of legal proceedings currently before UK courts.

I look forward to receiving your written submission which should be made using the portal available on the inquiry page of our website.

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