2 August 2023

T2A Position Statement on Young Adults in Youth Custody

Young adults
Young man sitting down on bench with back to camera

We recently wrote an open letter to the Minister of State for Prisons, Parole and Probation, Damian Hinds MP, on the subject of 18-year-olds being held in youth custody. We have included our policy position statement on the issue in full below.

T2A’s position on Extending Youth Justice provisions to Young Adults

HMPPS is currently retaining higher numbers of young adults in the children’s secure estate and on children’s youth justice caseloads. In April 2023, 22% of the whole children’s estate population and roughly 28% of the YOI population were young adults rather than children. This follows a Ministerial Directive—issued in December 2022 under Operation Safeguard—which stated that Youth Custody Institutions should hold young adults past their 18th birthday and transition them into adult prisons before their 19th birthday. One of the primary drivers behind this change is the major, growing capacity issues within the adult prison and probation systems alongside high levels of staff dissatisfaction and illness, and poor staff retention.

While it is unclear both whether this is a temporary measure and whether the government is actively considering merging young adults into the children’s system more systematically, in the light of the existing change in policy and the potential impact on both children and young adults, T2A has taken the opportunity to consider its position on the significant extension of children’s custodial spaces to young adults and has concluded that we have serious reservations about the policy which we believe must be reconsidered.

On one hand this represents an extension to existing policy. It is long-established practice for some 18-year-olds to have been kept within children’s institutions and on youth justice team caseloads for pragmatic reasons, for example, young adults on remand who are due to be sentenced within months and those who have youth justice Community Orders or Detention Training Orders to complete within a relatively short period of time, typically before their 19th birthday.

T2A has welcomed the new Framework for transitions from the child to adult custodial estate which was introduced in September 2022, and which created new processes within the Youth Custody Service to oversee and make placement decisions about all young adults transitioning. This has resulted in some 18-year-olds who have been assessed as standing to benefit from longer stays within the youth justice system – on account of their level of maturity, need for continuity from support services and the lead-in time needed to secure a place at a suitable adult institution. The implementation of this process took place in a similar timeframe to the Operation Safeguard decision, so it is not clear how much of the increase in proportion of young adults are a result of the new processes or capacity-driven decisions.

Having considered the evidence available to it of how practice is rolling out, T2A is of the view that the detrimental impact of a blanket policy of retaining 18-year-old young adults in the children’s system is both likely to outweigh the benefits to young adults and risks undermining children’s rights. While research suggests that the needs of young adults can be very similar to those of children (due to where they are in their psycho-social development journey), T2A has consistently called for a distinct approach for young adults i.e., one that draws on approaches to children but is separate to both child and adult approaches. Historically, T2A has made no specific recommendations for the youth system in its entirety to be extended to Young Adults though we have called for greater consideration of how youth provisions, including for example, magistrates trained to work with under-18, practice in youth courts and assessment tools could be adopted for young-adult specific provision. We have also advocated for ‘alternative approaches’ to be considered by policymakers in England and Wales. These include the Dutch approach, where the remit of the youth justice system extends to 25-year-olds, and the German approach, where courts can apply juvenile or adult law to young adults depending on needs and levels
of maturity.

To inform our position on the extension of juvenile custody to young adults, we have considered a range of factors. This includes the potential positive outcomes for young adults which could stem from this policy shift, provided this is in the context of there being a clear set of enablers and protections for children in place. This includes, for example,

  • an opportunity to further raise awareness across youth and adult systems that young people do not become fully mature adults on the eve of their 18th birthday – a campaign point that T2A has been championing since its inception
  • increased recognition of the distinct needs of young adults, and how the process of maturation, and the prevalence of developmental delays due to adverse childhood experiences and neurodiverse needs can mean these needs align closely with those of children
  • greater stability of relationships with key members of staff and access to statutory provisions for children, including Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) support which could mitigate the worst effects of the cliff-edge at 18, when these relationships and provisions currently end abruptly.
  • reduction in poorly managed transitions which can prove incredibly damaging to young adults at a critical stage in their maturational development
  • better appreciation of how training for youth practitioners and youth approaches support the needs of young adults and are likely to promote desistance, including for example, trauma-informed, exploitation-aware and child-first approaches.

Were this policy change be designed to appropriately support young adults and create a young-adult specific approach across the custodial estate, we would endorse it. However, in our view, any benefits to the individuals currently in the youth estate are likely to be significantly outweighed by the drawbacks, both for young adults and children. Poorly resourced and reactive changes to capacity issues are likely to compromise existing provision for children and come at the expense of their welfare or the rights and protections that are afforded to them for good reason, while not benefiting young adults who may not get access to appropriate services. Indeed, we have heard that there has been increased deployment of enforcement mechanisms, including dogs, adult restraint techniques, and discussion of the potential introduction of PAVA spray, for example. Other drawbacks include young adults’ needs becoming secondary to children and a potential detrimental impact on the outcomes of young adults who are ready to transition to the adult estate which can, managed well, be an opportunity for a young adult to reinvent themselves, establish new relationships and mark a personal development milestone.

T2A maintains its view that there should be a distinct approach to criminal justice for young adults which adopts and adapts practices which have been developed for children to better support healthy maturational development, enables young adults to form positive self-identities, and minimises the detrimental impact of the criminal justice system on their long-term outcomes whilst seeking to maintain public safety. Our ideal is that this would be delivered through a separate system which is developed carefully, following consultation, and funded adequately.

July 2023