A new document, setting out five sentencing principles that ought to be applied to young adults, will be launched today by the Howard League for Penal Reform. The proposed sentencing principles for young adults, typically aged 18 to 25, have been devised in line with developments in case law, science and social studies. If applied, they would assist the courts and improve sentencing outcomes.
The Howard League brought together an advisory group of experts to help draft the principles, drawing on the charity’s legal and participation work and the growing knowledge base about the needs and characteristics of young people.
The five sentencing principles are:
1. Young adults, typically aged 18 to 25, should be treated as a distinct category for the purposes of sentencing.
2. Custody should be a last resort for young adults.
3. Where a custodial sentence is imposed, the term should take into account the impact of prolonged custody on the young adult’s well-being and life chances.
4. The period of any custodial term should be less than that imposed on an older adult.
5. When considering mitigating factors, attention should be paid to how they particularly affect young adults.
More than 140,000 young adults aged 18 to 24 were sentenced to a community penalty or imprisonment in criminal courts in 2017. Imprisonment of young adults can have tragic consequences – between 2006 and 2016, 164 young adults aged 18 to 24 died in custody, of whom 136 lost their lives through suicide.
There is now a consensus that young adults aged 18 to 25 should be treated as a distinct group from older adults, largely because they are still maturing. Particularly compelling is the neurological and psychological evidence that development of the frontal lobes – the area of the brain that helps to regulate decision-making and the control of impulses that underpin criminal behaviour – does not cease until the age of about 25. In terms of brain physiology, susceptibility to peer pressure appears to continue until at least the mid-twenties, and the brain continues to mature in this period. Such evidence has led to calls from senior paediatricians to redefine ‘adolescence’ as the period between ages 10 and 24, and to reframe laws, social policies and service systems accordingly.
There is also evidence that one of the prevailing characteristics of this age range is the differing rates of development within the group – maturation occurs at different rates between individuals. Determining factors are not well understood, but there is growing recognition that social contexts have a strong influence, including those likely to also be influencing offending behaviour.
According to the Howard League, in spite of overwhelming evidence that young adults should be treated as a distinct group from older adults, the sentencing process, as it stands, does not sufficiently factor in the lessons from neuroscience, psychology and criminology. The Howard League asserts that if applied, the sentencing principles would enable judges and magistrates to make better-informed decisions, and prevent more young people from being involved in the criminal justice system.