A new report by the Youth Justice Legal Centre (YJLC), part of Just for Kids Law, reveals that severe delays in the criminal justice system are leaving children, families and victims in limbo, resulting in serious consequences for those who turn 18.
System delay is the main explanation for why children turn 18 years old between the commission of an offence and prosecution. COVID-19 has exacerbated delays throughout the criminal justice system which is having a significant impact on children approaching their 18th birthday.
The most recent official data shows that 1,400 offences a year are committed by children who turn 18 prior to conviction but it is believed this is a significant underestimate and the number is expected to rise. Turning 18 prior to prosecution means the young people have their cases heard in adult courts and lose the opportunity to benefit from the youth justice system. This often happens because it can take months or sometimes years for the police or the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to make a charging decision. There are currently no fast-track options for children, including those approaching their 18th birthday.
The outcomes for children who turn 18 are vastly different to those of their peers who are prosecuted as children. The damaging consequences include losing access to youth diversion schemes, losing anonymity during court proceedings, only being eligible for adult sentences including much longer rehabilitation periods which reduce employment prospects and prevent people from moving on with their lives.
Just for Kids Law is calling for timely justice for those who commit offences as children. The report, Timely Justice: Turning 18, recommends that where this is not possible the same sentencing framework should be applied to all those who offend in childhood. It also recommends a time limit of three months during which a child can be subject to release under investigation. And the report identifies an urgent need to collect and regularly publish accurate data on children who are released under investigation and those who commit offences but turn 18 prior to conviction.
The Youth Justice Legal Centre has also developed a legal guide to help lawyers navigate the different rules, regimes and principles which apply to those turning 18 in the criminal justice system.
Enver Solomon, Chief Executive at Just for Kids Law, said:
‘It is a travesty of justice that due to unnecessary delays in the criminal justice system young people who have offended in childhood are not able to benefit from legal protections which exist for those who break the law as children. As a result of the pandemic and court closures the situation is much worse with yet more delays and even more children being convicted as adults. Timely justice is crucial for children, families and victims. Young adults who committed offences as children must be given the opportunity to build meaningful futures and be treated fairly.’