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A distinct approach to young adults is tough on crime and a high-return investment, says Max Rutherford Criminal Justice Programme Manager at Barrow Cadbury Trust

Three years ago, six projects set out to demonstrate the effectiveness of a ‘whole pathway’ approach to young adults involved in crime – from point of arrest to release from prison. Manchester Metropolitan University’s (MMU) independent evaluation of this ‘T2A Pathway’, published today, tells the story of these projects from design to delivery during a time when local services faced unprecedented turmoil and austerity.

It highlights the extraordinary resilience, flexibility and skill of voluntary sector organisations in meeting the needs of society’s most vulnerable people, turning young lives around and pulling them back from the brink of a life of crime, self-harm, addiction and, for many, an early death.

A distinct approach to young adults that is tough on crime

What the T2A Pathway delivered was unequivocally “tough on crime”. There’s nothing soft about intervening to calm down a young man wielding a samurai sword in a park full of children. There’s nothing fluffy about coming to the aid of a brain-injured young man who, every day, sits naked on a bridge and threatens to thrown himself off. It’s not a charitable nicety to secure a safe place to live for a teenage mother and her new-born child who are both at high risk of sexual and physical abuse.

Commissioning services for 16-25 year olds that enable them to address their behaviour and turn their lives around is not do-gooding – it’s a high-return investment. No other age group is more likely to desist from crime, and no other group of adults has as much life still ahead of them. All of the 414 young people supported by the projects were causing harm to their communities (three quarters already had criminal records) and even more harm to themselves.

The evaluation is further evidence of the unmatchable value to people with complex needs of relationship-based, intensive support. This doesn’t mean services that are either high-cost or slow – quite the opposite. Services were described as “quicker” and “tailor made”, in comparison to statutory provision.

Benefits to other agencies

Of course, the work of projects like these benefits criminal justice agencies – reducing offending, avoiding breach and increasing compliance – all big wins for the police, courts, probation and prisons. It saves money, reduces crime and, perhaps most persuasive, saves these agencies precious time. As a police borough commander put it to me in conversation, “these projects help us spend more time catching bad guys”.

Yet it’s a direct benefit to other agencies too – mental health services (many of which have raised their thresholds to unreachable heights for young people) won’t have to pick up the pieces of acute crises; social care and child protection services won’t have to take as many children into care.

Gender and race

Nearly a third of the young adults supported by the projects were female, and one project was women-only. These teenage and young adult women had even more needs than the young men: 63% had experienced abuse, rape or domestic violence, and 15% had been involved in sex work. The evaluation reports great additional benefit from a gender-specific approach within the young adult focus.

A third of the young adults were BAME, with a higher rate in the prison-based projects than the community-based projects. A concern arising from the evaluation is disproportionately low levels of referral of young BAME men, in particular, by statutory agencies to voluntary sector services -, raising questions about the ability to meet the cultural, faith and ethnicity needs of this group -compared to referrals of young white men.


The most effective projects shared some common features in their structure and design, such as having a clearly defined distinct offer for young adults, strong partnerships in place from the beginning and a referral criteria and process that was co-designed by the project team and the referring agencies.

Sustainability of the projects beyond the pilot phase was universally tough at a time of continually shrinking budgets. Two projects were incorporated into the delivery model of a wider contract by the lead charity, two came to an end, and two secured further funding to carry on as they were. A reconviction study and economic analysis from MMU will conclude later this year, and be published in early 2018.

Wider impact

As a collective, T2A Pathway projects contributed evidence to the House of Commons Justice Select Committee’s inquiry on Young Adult Offenders, which concluded in 2016 that there is “overwhelming evidence” in support of a distinct approach to young adults throughout the criminal justice system. Professionals and young people from the projects spoke at national conferences and local events alongside politicians, Police and Crime Commissioners and senior officials. The projects took part in an array of pioneering research projects, including ones on brain injury, bereavement and race equality.

The projects’ legacy is still emerging, but it is clear they have already delivered immense impact, not only on the lives of hundreds of young people and their communities, but also on the people who work with them, and on those who make the policies.

This blog was written by Max Rutherford, Criminal Justice Programme Manager at the Barrow Cadbury Trust in response to the Final Process Evaluation report of the T2A Pathway. For more information email Max Rutherford.

The Transition to Adulthood Alliance (T2A) wholeheartedly welcomes the Justice Committee’s report of its Inquiry on Young Adult Offenders, and fully endorses its “blueprint” for a strategic approach to the treatment of young adults in the criminal justice system.

Reacting to the Committee’s unequivocal conclusion that that “there is overwhelming evidence that the criminal justice system does not adequately address the distinct needs of young adults” and that “there is a strong case for a distinct approach”, Joyce Moseley OBE, Chair of the T2A Alliance said:

“18-25-year-olds in the criminal justice system have a hugely untapped capacity to address their behaviour and permanently “grow out of crime”. But all of us – particularly victims, the young adults themselves and their communities – are being let down by a lack of strategy at the top that takes account of their distinct stage in life. For too long, successive governments have overlooked the value of a delivering a specific criminal justice approach for young adults, leaving it to a patchwork of pioneers on the ground to do their best to meet the particular needs of this age group.

“Now, having reviewed the extensive and authoritative body of evidence from disciplines including neuroscience, criminology and psychology, all of which support calls for a distinct approach for young adults, the Justice Committee has rightly called on the government to pursue a robust and bold agenda dedicated to enabling young adults who commit crime to turn their lives around. T2A looks forward to working with the Ministry of Justice and other agencies to implement the Committee’s landmark and visionary report in full and without delay.”

The Committee’s report includes a bold blueprint for a distinct approach to young adults throughout the criminal justice system, which it says is presented “in the light of the Government’s failure to act and in recognition of the weight and wealth of evidence provided to us in the course of our inquiry, as well as the overwhelming enthusiasm within the sector for change”.

The Committee’s proposals include:

  • That the prison sentence of ‘Detention in a Young Offender Institution’ (DYOIs) should be extended in forthcoming legislation to include all 18-25 year olds (it is currently restricted to those aged 18-20), and that various models of custody for young adults be piloted by the Ministry of Justice before any decision is made about long-term provision for this age group. T2A has campaigned strongly on both these points, in opposition to government proposals in 2013 to scrap the sentence of DYOI.
  • Distinct young adult courts should be piloted, which T2A is currently developing in five sites across England and Wales in partnership with the Centre for Justice Innovation (CJI).

The Committee recognised that young adults are over-represented in the criminal justice system and also at greater risk of being victims of crime.  Its strong recognition that many young adults in prison have faced additional challenges such as being in care (who make up around two fifths of young adults in prison) and experiencing brain injury (up to 70% of young people in prison), is particularly welcome and long overdue. T2A has worked with the Care Leavers’ Association to develop a national toolkit for young adult care leavers involved the criminal justice system, undertaken specific research and demonstration projects to show how young people with brain injuries in prison can be rehabilitated.

The Committee has specific recommendations relating to the fact that young black and Muslim men are disproportionately likely to end up in the criminal justice system (recognising the important contribution of Baroness Lola Young’s 2014 report), and rightly highlights that young women’s particular vulnerabilities and needs are different both to those of young men and older women and that they require a tailored response.

T2A also welcomes the Committee conclusion that all 18-25 year olds should be recognised as a distinct group, not just those within a criminal justice context, but also with regards to welfare, work, education and health.  T2A strongly agrees that there should be cross-governmental responsibility to enable young adults, particularly those who have faced challenge and difficulty to thrive.

Justice Committee website

T2A’s original submission to the Young Adult Offenders Inquiry