The T2A programme encompasses research, policy development and practical experience, which makes a strong case for significant reform. From this work, three key themes have emerged: Maturity, Sentencing and Transitions. Each of these is described below.
The evidence produced by the T2A programme has shown that a young adult’s ‘developmental maturity’ should be taken into account throughout the criminal justice process, and should be regarded as at least as important as their chronological age. This is necessary because variation in maturity may be directly related to offending and the ability to comply with statutory requirements, such as community sentences.
Building on an early report by the T2A Alliance, Universities of Crime: Young Adults, the Criminal Justice System and Social Policy, T2A has since identified findings from neurology that brain development continues well into young adulthood (usually as late as mid-20s), that young adults potentially face greater difficulties in controlling behaviour, are that they are more prone to risky behaviour and are less able to plan for the future.
A review of research and other literature on the issue of the maturity of young adult offenders, commissioned by the Barrow Cadbury Trust in early 2011, conducted by the University of Birmingham, states:
“The main conclusions of the review are supportive of the T2A position. There is strong evidence that, from a neurological perspective, the human brain is not fully developed in its capacity for cognitive functioning and emotional regulation until well into the period of young adulthood.
Overall, the research reviewed in this report points emphatically to the inappropriateness of an arbitrary age limit as the key factor determining the kind of judicial response an offender should receive, and that in the young adult group, the level of maturity exhibited by an offender is a valid factor to be considered within the legal process“
A further report, published in 2012, written by Professor Huw Williams of Exeter University, Repairing Shattered Lives, highlighted the impact of acquired brain injury on offending behaviour, and revealed that up to 60% of young prisoners have suffered a brain injury.
The University of Birmingham’s Institute for Applied Social Studies is currently developing a ‘maturity practice guide’ for criminal justice professionals on how to assess and respond to issues relating to maturity, which is currently trialled by two probation trusts, and will be finalised during 2013.
At the centre of T2A’s work is evidence to support the view that developmental maturity should be taken into consideration in the sentencing of young adults.
Public and political opinion also supports this approach. A ComRes poll, launched on 1 March 2011 conducted on behalf of the Transition to Adulthood (T2A) Alliance, found that both the public (69%) and parliamentarians (81%) believe emotional and psychological maturity should be taken into account when sentencing young adults (rated higher than a consideration of ‘age’). Currently in England and Wales, an individual is sentenced on the basis of their age, with under-18s subject to the youth system and over-18s subject to the law as it applies to adults.
The poll also lends support to the T2A Alliance’s proposition of the German model, that the courts should try young adults on a case by case basis according to their maturity.
Nearly half (44%) of Conservative MPs, 40% of Labour MPs, and 82% of Liberal Democrat MPs think young adults should be sentenced on a case by case basis under either adult or juvenile law (as in Germany), indicating widespread support for a radical shift in policy and legislation.
For more details, read the full ComRes report, and watch a presentation about the poll below.
An initial step was taken in June 2011 when the Sentencing Council for England and Wales included ‘Age and/or lack of maturity where it affects the responsibility of the offender’ as one of the ‘factors reducing seriousness or reflecting personal mitigation’ in the Sentencing Council’s definitive guidelines on assault. Further guidelines on drug offences, burglary and dangerous dogs have also included this factor.
This was the first time in English sentencing history that ‘maturity’ has specifically featured in guidelines for sentencing adults. A 2011 report by the Criminal Justice Alliance for T2A outlines these latest developments in more detail.
In January 2013, the CPS published its new definitive Code of Conduct for the Crown Prosecution Service, which for the first time includes the concept of maturity in guidance on assessing culpability.
In T2A’s examination of international best practice, T2A was most convinced by the model of sentencing of young adults in Germany. The German system has, since 1953, allowed sentencers a level of discretion in trying young adults aged 18-20 under juvenile law, depending on the seriousness and circumstances of the crime and the maturity of the offender. All young adults aged 18-20 are transferred to the jurisdiction of juvenile courts, with courts having the option of sentencing according to the juvenile law or the adult law. Juvenile law is applied if “a global examination of the offender’s personality and of his social environment indicates that at the time of committing the crime the young adult in his moral and psychological development was like a juvenile”. Juvenile law is also applied if it appears that the motives behind and the circumstances surrounding the offence are those of a typical juvenile crime.
In Germany, around two-thirds of young adults are sentenced as juveniles and on the whole it is more serious cases that are dealt with in the juvenile jurisdiction and minor, and proceedural, offences that are dealt with in the adult system. For those offences that are dealt with in the adult system, immaturity is still seen as a mitigating factor.
You can watch footage from the 2011 T2A National Conference, including a presentation by Dr Ineke Pruin on the German system (below).
This approach has been endorsed by the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers, which recommended that “reflecting the extended transition to adulthood, it should be possible for young adults under the age of 21 to be treated in a way comparable to juveniles and to be subject to the same interventions, when the judge is of the opinion that they are not as mature and responsible for their actions as full adults.”
Economic analysis carried out for the T2A Alliance by Matrix Evidence has also shown that introducing measures that would allow young adults to be tried under juvenile law following a maturity assessment is likely to produce a lifetime cost saving to society of almost £5 million (£420 per offender). During the course of two parliaments, the implementation of such a scheme would be likely to lead to a total net benefit to society of almost £473,000.
In demographic terms, young adults face a range of transitions as they move towards adulthood. These include: the move from education to employment; the move into a long-term relationship, perhaps becoming a parent; and the move from the parental home to their own ‘household’. In recent decades, there has been a significant shift in the age at which these milestones are reached. For example:
- In 1971 the average age of first marriage was 25.6 years for males and 23.1 years for females, whereas in 2004 this average had increased substantially to 31.4 and 29.1 respectively.
- The average age of the mother at the birth of her first child rose from 23.6 to 27.6 between 1971 and 2006.
- The age at which young adults first live alone has also increased. In 2006, 58% of males and 39% of females aged 20-24 were still living in the family home, compared to just 50% and 32% in 1991.
- The ‘staying on rate’ for post-16 education in England has more than doubled from 38% in 1970 to 78% today, with some 40% of young people currently going on to university
The criminal justice system’s arbitrary determination that those over the age of 18 are ‘adults’ is out of step with cultural and social norms of transitions to adulthood, and fails to recognise changes in broader society in recent decades. One of the T2A Alliance’s key recommendations is that improvements should be made in transitional arrangements and communication between agencies working with young adults, with particular focus on youth offending teams and probation trusts. At present, as young adults move from the youth to the adult criminal justice system and from youth to adult services in the community, the level of support typically drops dramatically, while the suitability of services may be reduced.
The effects of this process are exacerbated by poor communications between youth and adult services. It is therefore essential that youth offending teams and probation trusts improve their transition arrangements in a way that recognises the significant culture shift between the youth and adult criminal justice systems. In order to facilitate this transition, both agencies need to be supported by other key agencies within local authorities, including children’s services, local health services, adult and community services and the wider voluntary sector.
This issue has been directly addressed in practice by the T2A pilot project in Birmingham, led by Staffordshire and West Midlands Probation Trust.
It had been identified that the transfer of cases from youth offending teams to probation trusts was complicated and time consuming for both services. Young people were often moved from youth offending teams to probation trusts through administrative procedures with very little direct communication between the services and the young people through the transition period.
A draft national protocol was developed with the option of implementation throughout local services. Birmingham T2A developed a process where each young person has a direct contact with a Community Engagement Officer (CEO) as soon as an initial notification of transfer is made to the unit. The CEO ensures that the young person is kept informed of progress and is made aware of the differences between the services. The CEO remains in contact with the youth offending team officer and once the administrative work is completed and the case allocated to an offender manager, the CEO will organise a meeting between the youth offending team officer and the offender manager with the young person and representatives from any other services involved with the young person. The CEO remains in contact with the young person through the start of their engagement with adult probation services.
This process was highlighted as best practice in a number of official reports, including the HM Inspectorate of Probation’s thematic report on transitions, and the Riots, Communities and Victims Panel final report. This new process is expected to alleviate the fears of the young person and their family through this transition period, give the young person and their family a good understanding of the expectations of adult probation services, and ultimately avoid early breach action through misunderstandings.
This pilots has now been formalised through the publication, in 2012, of the Ministry of Justice and Youth Justice Board’s ‘Youth to Adult Transitions Framework’, which will be rolled out across England and Wales during 2013.
Young adults in trouble with the law often have particularly high levels of complex need and are from backgrounds of great disadvantage, and young adults with the most troubled or traumatic childhoods often take a lot longer than average to mature. Vulnerable young adults often lack positive adult role models and also suffer from high levels of mental ill-health and alcohol and drug misuse problems. As a member of staff, describing the young adults using their specialist service, put it in the Oxford University formative evaluation of the T2A pilot projects:
“They’re very needy. They’re very vulnerable. They haven’t had good role models. They often have chaotic lives, and lead very hand to mouth existences. And some of them, despite their age, are amazingly unskilled at coping with adult responsibilities.”
One of the T2A projects, Young Addaction Derby, has sought to address this issue, a project which believed that in developing services for young adult offenders with a drug treatment need, it is essential to consider the transition between youth and adult services and the lack of appropriate drug services for young adults at present.
T2A has promoted good practice of existing services that demonstrate effective working with young people in the transition to adulthood, and services that enable a smooth transition between agencies. All of the T2A projects have demonstrated this, but other examples have been profiled. Some of these were identified in reports for T2A by Young People in Focus (Made to Measure: Bespoke Services for Young Adults, 2009) and Revolving Doors Agency (Aiming Higher: A Good Practice Guide, 2010 and Towards a Shared Future: A commissioning guide on services for young adults with multiple needs, 2010).