The Sentencing Council should work towards developing formal sentencing principles for young adults, similar to the principles that are in place for children, says a report published by the Howard League for Penal Reform and T2A.
The report, Judging Maturity: Exploring the role of maturity in the sentencing of young adults analysed 174 court judgments in cases involving young adults, focusing on how judges considered the concept of maturity. The findings suggest that the age and maturity of young adult defendants are not sufficiently considered by the courts at present. However, the research also shows that where a young adult’s immaturity is raised by court professionals, the courts are well placed to factor it in to achieve better outcomes – and more likely to do so if sentencing guidance encourages it.
There is substantial evidence that young adults – aged 18 to 25 – should be treated as a distinct group from older adults, largely because they are still maturing – neuroscience research has proven that brain development continues well into the mid-20s. Reaching adulthood is a process, not an event, and the key markers of adulthood, such as independent living, employment and establishing relationships, happen at different times for different young people.
Young adults are more likely to be caught up in the criminal justice system than older adults. They face significant difficulties coping in prison, where both the suicide rate and violence rates are higher among their age group than among the prison population as a whole, and they have higher reconviction rates following release than older adults. Between 2006 and 2016, 164 people aged 18 to 24 died in custody, including 136 who died by suicide.
While there is a wealth of guidance and case law concerning the sentencing of children, there is no set of principles to ensure that judges take a tailored approach to sentencing young adults. Tens of thousands of young adults who appear before the courts for sentencing each year could benefit from a distinct approach.