12th April 2017

It has long been argued that young people should be treated differently from adults by the justice system. In his presentation last week for a Centre for Youth and Criminal Justice (CYCJ) associates seminar co-sponsored by SCCJR, Max Rutherford presented compelling evidence from a young adults pilot court project to support separate treatment.

He first charted the origins of juvenile courts in England and explained how the latest neuroscience research strengthens arguments for a distinct approach to dealing with offenders under 25.

Rutherford is Criminal Justice Programme Manager for the Barrow Cadbury Trust, which was founded in 1920 by the grandson of chocolatier John Cadbury. Barrow Cadbury and his wife Geraldine were social reformers who took a particular interest in juvenile crime and helped transfer the youth court model from the US to the UK. Nearly 100 years on, the Trust is still working to ensure young adults are treated fairly by the justice system.

Rutherford described how the Transition to Adulthood (T2A) initiative is producing a large and varied body of evidence to strengthen the case that developmental maturity is more helpful than chronological age in deciding how best to respond to offending by young adults. He argued that young people do not become adults overnight when they turn 18, and surveys suggest most people believe age and maturity should be taken into accounts by sentencers. Interestingly, however, one group disagreed – young people themselves.

Young people may consider themselves mature, but Rutherford pointed out that adolescence lasts for much longer than it used to, with key “adulthood markers” such as leaving home, marriage and having children delayed by an average of seven years compared to the 1970s.

Emergent work in neuroscience also suggests young adult brains simply work differently than those of mature adults. Young adults may experience adult emotions but lack the ability to control them, for example.

Young offenders also are over-represented in the justice system, signalling the need to treat this group as a priority. The good news is that they are also the group most likely to stop offending as they “grow out of crime”. A crucial factor affecting compliance with a sentence, said Rutherford, was whether offenders believed they had been treated fairly and with respect … and this age group are most likely to report that they haven’t been. A key focus of the T2A pilot had been to develop procedural fairness safeguards and to measure how well this was achieved in the eyes of those young adults going through the process. T2A has commissioned more than 40 original pieces of research that are available to those interested in issues of young people’s transition to adulthood and the implications of this for criminal justice

Rutherford ended by highlighting how differently European countries approach this group than we do in the UK: Germany has the option of youth court for anyone up to 25; the Netherlands has extended its youth justice system up to the age of 23; and Austria has extended youth justice right up to the age of 27. With Scotland only now raising its minimum age of criminal responsibility to 12, there is a long way to go before we realise systems that reflect our understanding of young people’s development.

Structural change takes time, he cautioned, but with understandings of adulthood evolving in jurisdictions across the world, a “tipping point” may be near.

Shona Craven, SCCJR Communications and Knowledge Exchange Assistant

Listen to podcasts and view slides of the presentations at The price of prejudice – when attitudes shape policy.