Nobody likes you when you’re 23 – are 18-25 year olds really adults and should there be different provisions in their sentencing?
In our current system, hearings for young people aged between 10 and 17 are initially held by a sub section of the Magistrates Court called Youth Court, presided over by either 3 magistrates or a district judge. The idea of having a separate court for people within this age range is to facilitate a young person’s rehabilitation into society by considering their age, maturity and circumstances in order to punish them in a manner that is proportionate and effective. Young people who fall in the 18 to 25 age bracket do not have the benefit of a specialised court. The Sentencing Council (2016) found that the inclusion of age and/or lack of maturity was only taken into account for 28% of young adults aged 18-21 and only 6% of young adults aged 22 or over despite adult sentencing guidelines stating that consideration should be given to “lack of maturity” as a potentially mitigating factor.
Whilst there are individuals aged between 18 and 25 who already possess the maturity, life experience and education to fully understand the consequences of their actions, it is arguable that the markers that traditionally identified adulthood no longer align with the reality of the circumstances of those reaching the age of 18. People are on average significantly older now when they reach milestones like moving from education to employment, moving from their childhood home into their own home, entering into long-term relationships and having children. In addition to this, Blackmore et al (2012) states that there is:
“notable evidence that development of the frontal lobes of the brain which regulate decision making and control of impulses, which underpin criminal behaviour, does not come to an end until a person is 25 years old.”.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists (2015) also suggest that heightened susceptibility to peer pressure appears to continue until at least the mid-twenties as the brain continues to mature. This brings into question both the comparative culpability of offenders in this age range and also highlights an immense potential for rehabilitation and reform in that a unique factor of this age group is their greater capacity to change in a shorter period of time than older adults. If we can harness young people’s potential in this period of their lives and provide them with the support and coping mechanisms to function as law-abiding adults, then maybe we can prevent young offenders from becoming adult offenders. Strategies for Youth (2016) research suggests that criminal justice interventions should:
“adopt a developmental perspective so as to support and enable maturation, including work on emotional regulation, impulse control and peer influence as well as social processes or maturation such as developing future aspirations, forming adult relationships and reducing recreational drug use.”.
But perhaps the simplest place to start would be taking steps to enable young people to better understand the criminal justice system and the processes that take place within it. The Centre for Justice Innovation and T2A (2018) suggest that if young adults are given the opportunity to better understand how the courts work, and feel they are being treated with fairness and respect, then they are more likely to respect the verdict of those courts. This could be enacted by providing young adults more information before they attend court in a format that is easy to access and understand, grouping young adults’ hearings into a nominated sitting each week and by following up after hearings to ensure that the young person understands the outcome and the opportunities open to them that could prevent them ever needing to engage with the criminal justice system again.
It is well known that people make mistakes in their youth and that often these mistakes can be a reflection of the immaturity that is characteristic of young adulthood, but what seems to now often be disregarded is that our definitions and understanding of when a person transitions from a child to an adult are no longer reflected in the sentencing provisions applied to young people. Length of sentence has a disproportionate effect on 18-25 year olds given the relatively rapid development that occurs during this period of people’s lives and surely this disproportionate impact should be considered when sentencing to prevent limiting a person’s options for successful rehabilitation. At Jeary and Lewis we aim to provide clear and accessible advice to young people accused of involvement in crime, including what to expect from attending court and an explanation of any outcome. We hope that with the right information young people can be prevented from repeated engagement with the criminal justice system as they go into adulthood.