The criminal justice system should take into account the developmental maturity of young adults with the creation of specialist courts, a thinktank has said.
The standard adult court process produces a number of barriers to understanding and engagement for defendants aged between 18-24, according to the Centre for Justice Innovation and Transition to Adulthood Alliance’s report, Young Adults in Court: developing a tailored approach.
Barriers include complex and technical language, and a formal and intimidating setting, which contribute to an ‘often bewildering’ experience.
Research on brain development in young adulthood suggests that impulse control, reasoning and decision-making capabilities are in formation until the mid-20s, the report states.
It acknowledges that aspects of justice system practice in England and Wales have adjusted accordingly. Since 2011 adult sentencing decisions have included maturity as a mitigating factor. From 2013 the Crown Prosecution Service began taking maturity into account as part of its public interest test.
‘However, the court system to which someone is allocated continues to be driven purely by the chronological age of the defendant, rather than in specific response to individuals’ developmental maturity or needs,’ the report says.
‘We now know that young adults are a developmentally distinct population. A chronological split between jurisdictions based on Edwardian evidence no longer reflects contemporary evidence.’
The report recommends that a young-adult court be piloted in the UK.
Features would include a specialist list, specialist judges and magistrates presiding over hearings, family involvement, adapting existing youth court courtroom language and communication, and an adapted courtroom environment.
Several ‘essential’ stakeholders, including the National Probation Service, support the trial of a young-adult court. However, there had been no ‘substantive’ conversation with court service administrators, the report says.
’Given that many of the proposed changes would require their support and involvement, this is a particularly significant issue that would need to be resolved.’