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Criminal Justice

The journey towards young adult courts

In his new role as Associate at the Centre for Youth & Criminal Justice (CYCJ), our Criminal Justice Programme Manager, Max Ruthford considers the importance of young adult courts and what the Trust’s Transition to Adulthood campaign (T2A) is doing to make this happen. This blog was originally taken from the CYCJ website.

For ten years, the Barrow Cadbury Trust has supported more than 40 research, demonstration and policy projects focused on improving outcomes for young adults involved in crime. These projects have included research on the distinct needs of young adults (e.g. by exploring neurodevelopment and brain injury among young people in custody), ethnicity (such as a study on the impact of Islamophobia on criminal justice decision-making) and gender (including looking at the distinct needs of young adult women in prison). A major focus of the programme has been on improving criminal justice practice, such as projects to support probation and sentencers to take account of developmental maturity and not just chronological age, and trialing innovative approaches to policing.

This growing body of evidence forms the basis of the ‘Transition to Adulthood’ (T2A) campaign, which promotes a more effective approach to young adults aged 18-25 at all stages of the T2A Pathway – a framework mapping 10 stages of the criminal justice process, from point of arrest to resettlement from custody, where a young adult specific intervention can be delivered that is distinct from the system as it relates to both children and older adults. In England and Wales this has contributed to significant policy and practice reforms. Currently, the House of Commons Justice Select Committee is concluding a major inquiry on Young Adult Offenders, to which T2A has provided extensive written and oral evidence. Across England and Wales a growing number of Police and Crime Commissioners, probation services and prisons are developing specific young adult services and interventions to better meet the needs of this group. T2A’s own pilots have shown that by taking such an approach, re-conviction rates are reduced, and positive outcomes in areas such as employment and health are achieved.

One area of focus for T2A for the next few years will be on the courts. There have been many positive developments that have affected the courts in recent years. In 2012, the Sentencing Council for England and Wales introduced for the first time a new mitigating factor in sentencing guidelines for adult offenders ‘age and/or lack of maturity’. In 2013, ‘maturity’ was included as a new factor in culpability considerations in the Crown Prosecution Service Code of Conduct. In 2015, the Ministry of Justice announced that the National Probation Service would be required to produce a maturity assessment for all young adults age 18-24 pre-sentence. This context provided fertile ground for a study in 2015, conducted for T2A by the Centre for Justice Innovation, examining the feasibility of establishing a young adult specific criminal court.

A young adult court would adapt the ‘procedural fairness’ principles of youth settings, which would include elements such as specialist listing arrangements so that it would only see 18-25 year olds, would likely take place in a youth court building or setting, and sentencing would be conducted by ‘youth ticketed’ magistrates. Other elements could include more integrated family involvement, more focused pre-sentence court assessment and the availability of specialist young adult disposals. ‘Procedural fairness’ adaptations of this kind, where trialed elsewhere, have shown positive impacts on reducing re-conviction rates, even where the sentence awarded does not differ. Research has shown that a defendant who understands the court process and believes the court has treated them fairly is far more likely to subsequently comply with the sentence given, even if they disagree with the decision.

Since early 2016, CJI has led a major new T2A initiative funded by Barrow Cadbury Trust to establish a network of young adult courts, an idea that has the backing of central government and the court services. Following a call for expressions of interest to court areas to take part in a local feasibility study, far more areas than expected sought to develop a pilot with many bids led by Police and Crime Commissioners. This level of interest illustrated the real desire among court professionals to develop the feasibility study into a pilot. From their point of view, not only was this approach ideologically right, but it tied in with broader policy agendas, such as improving outcomes for groups with the highest recall and breach rates (where young adults lead the way), efficiency savings (which could be achieved by focused, specialist listings), and utilising empty youth courts and specialist magistrates (both of which are currently under worked following the welcome 70% fall in five years in the number of children entering the criminal courts).

Ultimately, five sites have been selected, and are now working intensively with CJI to complete local needs analyses and feasibility, leading to an options paper for each site at the end of 2016. These will set out how the sites can move forward to become operational. Once live, each court would manage around 2,000 young adults per year, and an independent academic evaluation will monitor re-conviction outcomes with support from the Ministry of Justice’s Justice Data Lab. Aside from support locally from CJI and the costs of the evaluation, the sites will be operating entirely within existing resources.

We hope that by demonstrating a significant reduction in re-conviction rates, young adult specific criminal courts will become part of mainstream practice, and that many other areas will seek to develop models to suit local need, adding further to a growing momentum for the T2A agenda.