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Criminal Justice

Do young adults need their own courts?

Ben Estep, Youth Justice Manager at Centre for Justice Innovation, puts forward  the case for the establishment of young adult courts


Going to court can be confusing, intimidating, and frustrating for anyone.  For young adults (aged 18 to 24), who make up roughly a third of people sentenced in criminal courts each year, these reactions are intensified.


Criminal justice interventions aimed at adults but applied to this age group often fail to prevent further offending.  In fact  young adults serving community orders have the highest breach rates. We believe these two facts are related.


Our courts can and should play a leading role in reducing crime and ensuring a fairer justice system. There is clear evidence that how decisions in court are made and how the process feels to participants (a concept known as procedural fairness) can be as important as the sentence itself to young people’s perceptions. A number of studies have demonstrated that defendants reporting high levels of procedural fairness are more likely to comply with court orders, to perceive laws and legal institutions as legitimate authorities, and to obey the law in the future. But we know that standard practice in adult courts generates a number of important barriers: the process can be difficult to understand and follow, intimidating, and leave participants feeling disengaged and unfairly treated. This is particularly important for young people, who are especially attuned to perceptions of unfairness and signs of respect.


In a new report, [Young adults in court: developing a tailored approach], we outline a number of feasible adaptations to standard court practice for young adults.  These include measures such as use of simplified language to aid participants’ understanding, taking steps to ensure the process is comprehended, encouraging family participation, and adapting the courtroom environment to make it more conducive to engagement. Taken together, we believe that these adaptations hold out the prospect of increasing perceptions of procedural fairness and improving rehabilitation for this distinct population.


Many of these changes are relatively modest.  And much of this practice already exists, at least in aspiration, in our youth courts.  Since the youth court was established by the Children Act 1908, we have learned much more about the variable and protracted development of the young brain, and undergone more than a century of social change. Today, a hard cut-off between jurisdictions based only on chronological age makes increasingly less sense.  Aspects of justice system practice in England and Wales have adjusted in recognition of this – for example, adult sentencing decisions include maturity as a mitigating factor, and the Crown Prosecution Service takes maturity into account as part of its public interest test. But this approach has not yet reached the court process itself.


In the course of our research, we spoke with many court stakeholders who inherently recognised a need to develop a tailored approach for young adults, and who were enthusiastic about delivering adapted practice.  The Lord Chancellor has recently lent his support to the concept of specialist “problem-solving” courts which would play a more active role in the process of rehabilitation. We hope that this may signal a willingness to allow interested areas to pilot new approaches.  To this end, in the next phase of this work, the Centre for Justice Innovation and the Transition to Adulthood Alliance are keen to work with a small number of courts to plan, implement, and evaluate pilot young adult court approaches. We believe that our courts can provide a better response to offending by young adults, and in so doing make a positive difference both to their lives and to our communities.


Centre for Justice Innovation