18th birthdays at Her Majesty’s Pleasure

Yesterday a joint inspection report was published on ‘transition arrangements from youth to adult services in the criminal justice system’. It was compiled by the Probation Inspectorate, the Prisons Inspectorate, the Care Quality Commission, the Welsh health inspectorate Estyn and Ofsted.

The report found that although there was some good practice, there were also a multitude of shortfalls and failings. Many of the young people said they had not been involved in decisions about their own lives and that they were unprepared for the reality of a move to an adult prison. There was also insufficient sharing of information between services or forward planning leading rehabilitative opportunities being delayed or missed completely.

A couple of weeks ago the Ministry of Justice and Youth Justice Board published a ‘youth to adult transitions framework’. It is a well-meaning document and a step in the right direction, but we still have concerns and Howard League staff are meeting with officials next month.

These reports acknowledge many of the issues regarding young adults in the criminal justice system that the Howard League has been campaigning on for years. It should be a concern to us all that this age group commits a third of all crime, represent a third of all those sentenced to custody each year and take up a third of probation caseload. They are also those most likely to reoffend when they are finally released from prison.

The Howard League campaigns for four points to be put into practice:

  1. Diversion from community orders to pre-court measures, as it done in the youth justice system, is a proven way to reduce reoffending and keep people out of contact with the long term damage involvement in the criminal justice system can bring. There is evidence that over the course of 10 years this could save the public purse over £1 billion.
  2. Increasing the use of effective community sentences that are responsive to the distinct needs of young adults are more beneficial than a heavy reliance on unpaid work programmes that don’t address the underlying causes of criminal behaviour.
  3. Adapting sentencing guidelines so there is a presumption that young adults are lacking in maturity and raising the custody threshold so that it can only be considered as a last resort, as it is for children, would divert many young people from our failing prison system and save almost £33 million over the next decade.
  4. For the very few young adults who do require a period in a secure setting, they should be in small units which can provide a safe environment and offer real opportunities for rehabilitation. Prison is the most costly, misused and failing part of the criminal justice system. Yet it is neither economically wise or socially just.

The progress in acknowledging the issues regarding this group of young people is welcome, but the opportunity should be seized to do better and go further to recognise that 18-24 year olds are a distinct group with discrete needs that must be addressed.

As many 18 year olds in the community head off to university each year, tabloids and magazine programmes run their accompanying annual stories of the number who can’t cook a tin of baked beans or do their own washing. Yet we expect 18 year olds in custody to magic the ability to be able to cope in the austere and hostile adult prison system. Equipping young people with these abilities isn’t part of the prison service’s 18th birthday present to young people; instead they ship them out to the cliff-edge of the adult prison system. Welcome to adulthood.

October 12, 2012 · Frances Crook · No Comments
Posted in: Children and young people, Sentencing

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