2 August 2023

International report on young adults calls for justice system reform

Young adults
A glum young white man with a beard sits with his head propped up by his hand.

The Michael and Suzanne Borrin Foundation in New Zealand has conducted a research project to better understand how the criminal justice system could be reformed to meet the needs of young adults.

The report, authored by Nessa Lynch, focused on the region of Aotearoa where a number of young adult approaches have already been applied. This includes the Young Adult List Court, which has been operating at Porirua District Court for a short time. The report explains the key differences that have been made to better meet the needs of young adults:

“It is a District Court sitting, but with procedural modifications and processes to better support young adults, particularly those with communication difficulties. Any person aged 18-25 who is due to appear at the Porirua Court is allocated to this list.”

The Porirua District Court adapts the court process and offers additional support to empower young adults to engage in the process.

“There is specialist multidisciplinary support (e.g. psychologists, social workers) and procedure and communication by the judge and by the other participants is adapted for this age group. There is a focus on participation and ensuring young adults supported to fulfil their conditions and plans, with a view to resolving cases without a conviction where possible.”

The experiences and outcomes of the young adults from this specialist court were compared with another cohort of young adults from a comparison court. Young adults from the specialist court reported that they were better able to engage with the process and that judges took a tailored approach to their situation. It was also positive to see a strong focus on community interventions for young adults that aim to address the causes of offending.

It was noted, however, that some interventions may be placing an additional burden on young adults, so getting the balance right is crucial.

One of the report’s suggested reforms is to extend the provisions of the youth justice system to young adults. This might mean, for example, that a young adult could have additional speech and language support when appearing at court.

It does recognise, however, that this should not be done at the risk of damaging the integrity of the youth justice system – or the young people within it.

“If some young adults were remanded and sentenced to youth justice residences, it would also be important to ensure that this would not have any negative effect on the safety or provision of services to adolescents in the same facility.”

The report also considers the viability of creating a specialist system for young adults:

“The benefits of a third system approach are that it recognises the specific needs and characteristics of young adults. This is demonstrated in the discussion of the Young Adults’ List Court, where the procedure and services available are tailored to young adults.”

Since 2008, T2A has supported research and practice to identify effective approaches for young adults throughout the criminal justice system. We agree that a bespoke system that focuses on young adults’ strengths and capacity for change is the right way forward.

“The best protection for society is a young adult who has been reintegrated successfully into society and where the causes of the offending have been addressed.

“Positive outcomes in this age-group will have significant effect on re-offending rates, and particularly the life outcomes for young adult Māori.”