How should we deal with young people – they are the most likely to commit crime, but very unlikely to be given a break simply because they are young.
Under 18 year olds who get into trouble with the law are dealt with differently to adults, worldwide – both the law to which they are subject and their prisons should be specially designed for children. But when a child reaches their 18th birthday in England and Wales, they are suddenly plunged into an adult system. This “cliff-edge” no longer seems just. We now know that the brain does not mature until the age of 25 (on average) – before then many young people are as impulsive and as poor at making decisions as children.
So why then do we treat young adults (18-25) who commit crime more-or-less the same as other adults? Other countries have a more sophisticated approach. Germany and the Netherlands allow young adults who are immature, to be tried and sentenced under youth justice law. But here, age and/or lack of maturity is only a mitigating factor. And it only mitigates the sentence if advocates suggest it should, and if the judge accepts the argument. Whether or not a sentence is reduced in recognition of a defendant’s maturity, the punishment someone receives if they committed a crime on their eighteenth birthday is likely to be much tougher than if they had been convicted when 17. Mitigation can only mitigate, and all sentencers are nowadays under pressure to follow sentencing guidelines.
A new report from the Howard League for T2A suggests that sentencing guidelines themselves need to be changed if young adults who get in trouble with the law are ever to get the right sanction. The Howard League analysed 174 court judgments in cases involving young adults, focusing on how judges considered the concept of maturity. They looked at 118 recent sentence appeals; 33 Attorney General references; and 23 minimum term reviews.
The charity’s research found that, in almost half of all the sentence appeal cases, neither age nor maturity was considered and that, in general “the inclusion of age and/or lack of maturity in Sentencing Council guidance had not made a significant difference as to whether or not maturity was considered”.
This is depressing stuff but not entirely surprising. Advocates and judges get no specific training in dealing with young adults, or in how to make an assessment of maturity. Probation officers get some training, but many (most?) sentences do not involve a pre-sentence report, so unless the advocates are very well versed in their sentencing mitigation, immaturity is unlikely to be brought up in court at all. And if the defendant is unrepresented (as are 25% in the magistrates’ courts and 7% in the Crown), they will probably not be aware of the sentencing guidelines, let alone able to argue for their own immaturity.
So despite the fact that some senior judges recognise the eighteenth birthday should not be a “cliff edge”, and sentence accordingly, it is likely that most 18-25 year olds in most courts are treated the same as older adults.
The argument to treat 18-25 year olds with convictions differently has been rumbling on for a long time. As with many other causes in criminal justice (the age of criminal responsibility, the need to recognise that women with convictions have different needs, the reform of criminal records), the experts agree, but we have not yet persuaded enough politicians, judges and opinion-formers of our point of view.
As a first step, it would be great if lawyers, judges and magistrates were trained in why young adults should be treated differently from other adults. Only when they really understand and buy in to the rationale, will behaviour change.