Criminals under 25 should not go to adult prison, MPs say

'The Ministry of Justice has not clearly articulated to us why it has not acted decisively to develop a systematic new approach to young adults, given the weight of evidence'

'The Government has been hesitant to act'
'The Government has been hesitant to act'

Young offenders are still developing neurologically up to age of 25 and should be kept out of adult prisons, a group of MPs have warned.

In a report, members of the Commons Justice Select Committee claimed there is “overwhelming evidence” that the criminal justice system does not adequately address the needs of young adults.

MPs on the committee attacked the Ministry of Justice and the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) for a “lack of action” and “tinkering around the ages”. It added that more victims will suffer crime unless the regime for dealing with young adult criminals is overhauled.

In their conclusions the MPs say the Government should use of the forthcoming prison reform bill to extend up to the age of 25 the sentence of detention in young offender institution for 18 to 20-year-olds.

Its report argued that those in the age group offend the most but have the most potential to stop offending. "The Ministry of Justice has not clearly articulated to us why it has not acted decisively to develop a systematic new approach to young adults, given the weight of evidence," the study said.

They added: “As the brain is a plastic organ it can heal to an extent up to the age of 25 if taken out of ‘aversive circumstances’ which can cause brain changes, for example, separation from family and friends and exposure to punitive conditions.

“While the brain is continuing to develop there is a risk that problems will be compounded by involvement in the criminal justice system itself and that opportunities will be missed to repair the developmental harm caused by brain injury or other forms of trauma,”

"The lack of action denotes an absence of leadership, both departmentally and within NOMS, and tinkering around the edges misses clear opportunities to seek to prevent the cycle of offending continuing, creating more victims in the process."

Alex Hewson, of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “A justice system which throws young people off a cliff edge on their 18th birthday, and expects them to fend for themselves in the adult system when they are still maturing and often vulnerable, is not one that is set up to deliver for offenders, victims or local communities.

“This report from the cross-party justice committee offers a clear endorsement of the importance of taking account of maturity at all stages of the criminal justice system and a comprehensive blueprint for reform.”

Conservative MP Bob Neill, chairman of the committee, said: "The approach to young adults in the criminal justice system must be based on a robust assessment of the evidence.

"If not, it will continue to fail, with so many missed opportunities to transform lives, repair harm, lower costs, and reduce crime."

He said research findings in criminology, psychology and neurology indicate the need for a distinctive approach.

"There is overwhelming enthusiasm for change within the sector," Mr Neill added. "And yet the Government has been hesitant to act. We do not understand why it has not been more courageous, and has hidden behind outdated legislation."

The committee has drawn up a "blueprint for change", calling for legislation to extend up to the age of 25 the sentence of detention in a young offender institution for 18- to 20-year-olds.

Highlighting current conditions in the custodial estate, the report said the MoJ and NOMS should either act urgently to recruit and retain more prison officers, or the Government should seek to adjust the sentencing framework to reduce the population to "manageable levels" by shifting to "alternative community-based means effectively to promote public safety".

Other proposed steps included testing of "young adult" courts; implementing a distinct approach, with specialist staff dealing with young adults; and carrying out further work to evaluate the impact of maturity as a mitigating factor in sentencing.

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