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Reckless youth? Why courts should pay more attention to maturity

Penelope Gibbs
13 Jun 2024

We have known for over a decade that the brain matures at 25 (on average) not 18. But the court system for the most part acts as if an 18 year old is as mature as a 50 year old. Under 18 year old defendants are dealt with in the youth court which is closed to the public and where all the practitioners and judges are trained in dealing with children, and mete out child-specific sentences.

18-25 year olds get few breaks in the adult magistrates’ court. The court, the practitioners and approach are for the most part exactly the same for anyone deemed to be an adult. Yet how mature someone is affects their impulsivity, reasoning, ability to control emotions and resistance to peer pressure. Someone who is less mature may be less culpable for the offence. Maturity can also impact how someone presents in court and the support they need to participate effectively in the hearing.

Most young people grow out of crime, but the wrong criminal sanction can prevent this. In recent years, there has been some acknowledgement by judges and magistrates that they should take account of maturity both in their approach and in sentencing. The Sentencing Council’s general guideline on age and/or lack of maturity recognises the potential impact of low maturity on a person’s responsibility for the offence and their ability to cope with a prison or community sentence and says that this “may justify a reduction in the sentence”. In a 2021 report the Magistrates’ Association recommended magistrates should be trained to understand maturity and its implications for the court process and decision making.

But does this happen? We recently supported volunteers to observe cases in London’s magistrates’ courts. Courtwatchers saw 195 hearings involving young people aged 18-25 and were asked to note whether the youth of the defendant seemed to make any difference. Not much – courtwatchers only noted the defendants’ maturity being mentioned in a third of the hearings.

When maturity came up, it was seldom covered in depth: “maturity was mentioned as an aside”. But some lawyers were more specific about the effect of youth on offending. One defence lawyer referred to his client being subject to peer pressure having “got in with the wrong crowd”. He advocated for bail because the boy was “highly suggestible and had been exploited by others”. Another lawyer cited his client’s lack of positive social relations: “Client trafficked from Eritrea in 2019 at age of 15. Was in apprenticeship and has flat in Surrey but unable to sustain training and came back to friends in Croydon, smoking weed and drinking with them. Said covid made it hard for him to maintain college/ training, isolated and everyone he is tied to is non-Croydon. No family, 16-year-old brother is in Calais waiting to come across.”

Even when maturity was mentioned, courtwatchers felt that it didn’t make a lot of difference to the approach of the court or decisions made. A young woman had failed to attend her previous hearing. Her lawyer suggested she was naïve but “judge completely dismissed this submission…This was not a good enough reason for not complying and she could have made more of an effort to get to court on time”. In another case the courtwatcher was concerned that the 18 year old and a 28 year old who were co-defendants were given the same bail conditions “even though the defence reminded the court he would/could find it hard with the distractions of youth to keep to the conditions…The lad looked dishevelled…For all we know the older man could have been coercing the younger man.” The challenge is that if only one person in the court is attuned to the maturity issue, then it risks being ignored. The same can happen if the information is put forward late in the day. 

One of the most passionate advocates of a sensitive approach to maturity was a prosecutor in the trial of a young Romanian man who had been charged with stealing over £1,000 of alcohol from a supermarket. “The prosecutor used a report on the precarious position of young adults in society, especially emphasising the ineffectiveness of viewing them as adults as soon as they turn 18. Using the research, he emphasised the growth still needed and urged leniency.” However, the courtwatcher felt that the report “was not explored fully. This may be because the report was introduced during the trial, therefore not offering enough time to process.” The Magistrates’s Association suggested in 2021 that a qualified practitioner should do an assessment of a defendant’s maturity early in the prosecution process. This makes sense given that most defendants don’t get a pre-sentence report so assessment of maturity is hit and miss. 

There is already guidance suggesting that judges take account of maturity, so what can be done to change practice? We suggest training is key – not just for judges but for advocates and legal advisers. All those involved need to understand why young adults need to be approached differently and how to do so. We also recommend that young defendants should be assessed for their maturity at an early stage. Rob Allen, author of the foreword to the report and co-host of the Transform Justice podcast, is more radical. He advocates for young adult cases to be heard in the youth court, where lawyers and judges already have the specialist training. However the change is achieved, the Courtwatch London project shows that only by having eyes on the court can we know what is actually going on.

Read the full report here: