New report argues taking account of maturity more important than age in criminal justice decision-making

The criminal justice system is failing to adequately support young adults by not offering a distinct approach that recognises their development and varying levels of maturity, finds a report published by the Transition to Adulthood (T2A) Alliance and the Howard League for Penal Reform.

The report is published only a day after a major review from Lord Harris of Haringey into the deaths of young adults in custody, which called for a radical overhaul of the way that the criminal justice system responds to the particular needs of young adults.

You can’t put a number on it draws on participation work from the Howard League, involving over 80 18-24 year-olds with experience of the criminal justice system from across England and Wales

Young people told the Howard League that everyone matures at a different rate and that maturity has little to do with age or legal status. The criminal justice system should be better at giving young people responsibility so they can grow and develop, including help with interpersonal and practical life skills

A particular concern raised by many young people was that of the so-called ‘paper self’, the identity constructed for them by the criminal justice system at a time when they are still finding out who they are. Bureaucratic assessments contained within pre-sentence reports, sentencing remarks, police records, Thinking Skills Programme (TSP) reports, hostel records or on Offenders Assessments (OASys) in prison can become the basis for all professional interaction with young people – even when such assessments contradict each other or are in effect no longer accurate because the young person is maturing within the system

The issue of transition to adulthood at 18 was raised consistently, with particular concerns around the levels of support received as children that disappear at the same time as responsibilities as adults increase. There needs to be consistent professional support to help young people navigate the criminal justice system, the law and transitions between different services.

Other recommendations echo T2A’s call for young adults to be sentenced by maturity and level of understanding rather than numerical age. If the prison system remains structured around age, then at the very least the prisons should be offering more support when young people move between under-18, 18-21 and adult prisons.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “All too often the criminal justice system puts young people’s lives on pause, stalling their maturation and indeed preventing them from reaching responsible adulthood.

“This report shows that a better understanding of how young people mature is key to criminal justice reform with this age group. More nuanced approaches at every stage of the criminal justice system would recognise both the extraordinary resilience that these young people possess while also offering the support they need to become fully responsible adults.


  1. The Howard League for Penal Reform is the oldest penal reform charity in the world. It is a national charity working for less crime, safer communities and fewer people in prison.
  1. The report was funded by the Barrow Cadbury Trust as part of the work of the Transition to Adulthood (T2A) Alliance – a broad coalition of 13 leading criminal justice, health and youth charities – working to evidence and promote the need for a distinct and effective approach to young adults (18-24 year olds) in the transition to adulthood, through the criminal justice process.