This blog, by Rob Allen and Dr Laura Janes, was written for Russell Webster to coincide with the launch of their T2A (Transition to Adulthood) report on young adults and parole and is cross-posted here.
The current Secretary of State for Justice has put the parole system at the heart of his reform agenda, introducing sweeping changes to both law and policy designed to “stop the release of dangerous offenders from prison”.
The changes have ranged from who may be referred to the Parole Board, to what professionals working for the Ministry of Justice can say to the Board in written and oral evidence. In the recent case of Bailey v SSJ the High Court said that one piece of guidance “may well have resulted in prisoners being released who would not otherwise have been released and in prisoners not being released who would otherwise have been released.” All the changes made by the current administration apply indiscriminately to anyone going through the process, regardless of age.
Young adults, currently defined by the Parole Board as 18-21-year-olds, only make up around 2% of its overall case load. But data revealed in a new T2A report on young adults and parole shows that there are some important differences in the characteristics of this cohort compared to older adults..
First, young adults are much more likely to appear before the Parole Board because they have been sent back to prison for alleged failures on supervision after automatic release from a standard sentence. The Board must then decide whether it’s safe to re-release them. Last year 97% of all initial ‘paper reviews’ by the Parole Board of young adults were because they had been recalled. Yet, across all age groups only 73% of cases concerned recalls.
A recent report by the Chief Inspector of Probation found that “most recalls to custody were caused by homelessness, a return to drug or alcohol misuse or a failure to ensure continuity of care pre and post release – not by re-offending.” Young adults can be particularly susceptible to be being recalled given that their developing maturity may make it harder to comply with licence conditions.
Second, when young adults are considered in more depth and have a chance to explain themselves to the Parole Board at an oral hearing, they are much more likely to be released than older applicants. In 2022, 59% of all young adults were released following an oral hearing whereas the overall release rate for all reviews was one in four.
The T2A Alliance
In the 18 years since its Independent Commission published Lost in Transition, Barrow Cadbury Trust has worked tirelessly to promote a more distinctive approach to young adults in the criminal justice system through T2A. This latest study looks at a relatively hidden corner of criminal justice that needs urgent attention.
It’s very welcome that existing Parole Board guidance says 18–21-year-olds should be presumed suitable for an oral hearing if they aren’t released on the papers, but the study suggests more should be done to enable release at the initial paper stage or at least ensure oral hearings are convened as quickly as possible. Given the current pressures on prison places, it makes little sense to have young adults recalled to prison who are highly likely to be safe to release, sometimes staying there for a year or more. The Chair of the Sentencing Council has recently encouraged the use of suspended sentences where appropriate in light of the high prison population.
The report also recommends that more should be done to ensure young adults, many of whom have high levels of need, can effectively participate in the parole process with the support of legal representation. This could also go some way to counter the systemic discrimination that persists for minoritised groups in prison and which has still not been addressed five years on from the Lammy review. It will also assist the very few young adult women that come before the Board but who require a specialised approach.
The T2A report also argues that the Parole Board should treat those up to 25 as young adults, which would not only reflect the latest research on brain development but bring practice into line with many other agencies. For example, thanks in part to the influence of work by the Howard League and T2A, courts should now take account of the emotional and developmental age of an offender, and recognise that young people up to 25 are still developing neurologically.
Greater application of this evidence-based approach by both the Parole Board and HMPPS will bring parole more into line with other parts of the system. The report makes a number of simple recommendations such as making sure the Board asks for the right kind of information before reaching a decision. When a young person has been in care, the Board should have information from social services. The Board should also interpret the test for release which it must apply in the light of what’s known about how young people mature, and how their risks of causing harm can be managed and reduced. The report recommends that the prison service gives young adults better access to the programmes, relationships and assistance which can help them prepare for success on release.
Probation is also encouraged to provide more individualised support for young adults on licence in the community, but which does not overload them with complex requirements or impose conditions all but impossible to meet. The report finds mixed views about whether young adults are recalled too much but recommends this should be kept under close review, along with safeguards to prevent them going back to prison unnecessarily.
Given the relatively small number of young adults going through the parole process, and the obvious benefits to reform, it is hoped that these recommendations will be both feasible and welcomed.