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Judging maturity – A report on sentencing young adults

Judging maturity: exploring the role of maturity in sentencing young adults, Howard League for Penal Reform and Transition to Adulthood, July 2018

This report by the Howard League and Transition to Adulthood recommends that The Sentencing Council should work towards developing formal sentencing principles for young adults, similar to the principles that are in place for children.


The Howard League analysed court judgments in cases involving young adults, focusing on how judges considered the concept of maturity. The research found that the age and maturity of young adult defendants are not currently sufficiently considered by the courts. The courts are more likely to factor immaturity in to sentencing if the sentencing guidance requires it and this results in better outcomes.

There is significant evidence that young adults (18 to 25 year olds)  should be treated as a distinct group from older adults, largely because they are still maturing.  Neuroscience research has proven that brain development continues well into the mid-20s.

Young adults are more likely to be caught up in the criminal justice system than older adults.  They do not cope well in prison leading to a high suicide rate and high reconnection rate.  There is no set of principles to ensure that judges take a tailored approach to sentencing young adults despite the considerable numbers of defendants.

The research found that the inclusion of age and/or lack of maturity in Sentencing Council guidance had not made a significant difference as to whether or not maturity was considered.  However, where the relevant sentencing guideline included age and/or lack of maturity, and the court considered that factor, it was more likely to result in a reduction in the sentence on appeal.

The report highlights the findings in a Justice Committee report on sentencing young adults, which recommended that a distinct approach to sentencing by the courts should be adopted.


The recent Court of Appeal judgments of  Clarke and Hobbs both concluded that 18 should not be seen as  a cliff edge, after which all of the principles which apply to sentencing children cease to apply.  Youth justice practitioners need to familiarise themselves with the material mentioned above and refer to it when representing young adults.