Treating young offenders as mere numbers will fail them and undermine prison reform.

Prison reform is a perennial political football. The recent publication of the Justice Committee report on the Treatment of Young Adults in the Criminal Justice System was swiftly followed by a government white paper on prison reform.

The criminal justice system treats individuals aged 18 or over as adults. Yet research presented to the committee strongly supports the view that young adults are a distinct group, with needs different from children under 18 and adults over 25. Such key evidence may reasonably be viewed as an important foundation for prison reform and cutting reoffending rates.

The 18-25 demographic represents 10% of the general population but accounts for 30%-40% of cases churning through our dilapidated criminal justice system. Yet, on the face of it, the prison reform white paper is more concerned with football-style performance tables.

The justice secretary recently announced publication of an annual league table for prisons, with three-year performance agreements to be in place from April 2017 for a third of prisons. She stressed that ‘prison governors will need to know more than ever which approach delivers the biggest bang for their buck’.

The select committee’s report shows why this approach is unlikely to succeed. After considering evidence from a wide range of sources, it concluded: ‘There is a strong case for a distinct approach to the treatment of young adults in the criminal justice system. Young adults are still developing neurologically up to the age of 25 and have a high prevalence of atypical brain development.’

Both of these ‘impact on criminal behaviour and have implications for the appropriate treatment of young adults by the justice system as they are more challenging to manage, harder to engage, and tend to have poorer outcomes’.

In that case, why are we steering prison reform down the path of collating statistics on outcomes?

Dr Delmage, a consultant adolescent forensic psychiatrist, explained to the inquiry that the ‘brain is a plastic organ which can heal to an extent up to the age of 25, and that while the brain is continuing to develop there is a risk that problems will be compounded by involvement in the criminal justice system itself, or developmentally inappropriate interventions provided by its agencies, and opportunities will be missed to repair in a timely manner the developmental harm caused by brain injury or other types of trauma’.

A blueprint of sound recommendations was outlined by the Justice Committee, including:

  • Clear acknowledgement of the developmental status of young adults;
  • Universal screening by prisons and probation services for mental health needs, neuro-developmental disorders, maturity and neuro-psychological impairment;
  • Specialist training for staff in terms of prison and probation for young adults;  
  • Extending statutory support by a range of agencies to those under 25;
  • Evaluating the true impact of maturity as a mitigating factor in criminal courts in respect of sentencing process;
  • Testing specialist Young Adult Courts; and
  • Detention in young offender institutions for those up to 25 years old.

We already know prison does not work. Liz Truss herself acknowledged that ‘reoffending rates have not shifted in a decade and amount to a £15bn annual cost to society. The human cost is higher still’.

Dealing with young adults in the criminal justice system is not just about reconviction rates. It is also about science – the crucial development necessary for making a successful transition into a crime-free adulthood.

The 18-25-year group may well be top of the league tables with high rates of reoffending and breach, yet this is also the most likely group to stop offending as they grow out of crime. By reducing individuals to numbers, we are increasing our chances of failing this distinct group well into the future.

Paramjit Ahluwalia is a barrister specialising in criminal law at Garden Court Chambers, London