The Alliance for Youth Justice published an Evidence Review in April 2023 for the three-year ‘Young People in Transition in the Criminal Justice System’ project, exploring the experiences of young people turning 18 while in contact with the youth justice system.
The review highlights a swift change in young people’s experience with the youth justice system at the age of 18, during which support reduces, worsening vulnerabilities and leaving young people at risk of continued involvement in crime. Ethnic minority young people, amongst others, face significant structural disadvantages and particularly destabilising transitions. The review focuses on three key thematic areas in its analysis: custody, safeguarding young people at risk, and racial injustice.
- Custody: The review finds that outcomes for young adults in custody are very concerning, and that the criminal justice system does not discriminate between young and older adults. The increase in harsher sentencing of older children is worsening this problem, while the system does not take into account the needs of young people when selecting the establishments they will be transferred to. The review identified a lack of enhanced and tailored support in this regard.
- Safeguarding: The review finds that the risks of criminal exploitation increase as children turn 18, thus losing safeguarding support built for younger children, and facing the more restrictive, adult response to claiming victimisation in the criminal justice system. Extra protections such as the National Referral Mechanism and modern slavery legislation are failing to bridge the gap between children and adult safeguarding systems, often leading to victims of criminal exploitation facing unfair prosecution. The review calls for the development of transitional safeguarding support and a shift in attitudes on criminal exploitation, mirroring that seen previously around sexual exploitation.
- Racial Injustice: The review identifies that childhood inequalities, often stemming from racial disparities in the justice system and wider system, mean that ethnic minority children are more likely to transition from a point of greater vulnerability into the adult criminal justice system. Further effects of the racial injustice in transition include: a lack of appropriate support; perceptions of culpability and hasty assumptions of adult development in young people turning 18; a lack of cultural competency in support services; and a lack of trust and confidence on behalf of children transitioning, which negatively affects their engagement with the criminal justice system. The review calls for greater funding, awareness, and involvement from the voluntary and community sector to smooth the transition from youth to adult justice.
Partly as a result of the structural disadvantages, particularly destabilising transitions, and the switch from a focus on welfare to enforcement, the review recommends that the criminal justice system adopts a holistic and intersectional view of transition. As part of reimagining the approach to transition into adulthood, the review includes the following recommendations:
- Extending the support children are entitled to from a range of agencies up to 25 year olds;
- Allowing young people who turn 18 to remain in the youth justice system; and
- Encouraging the voluntary and community sector to create a degree of continuity by bridging the gap between childhood and adulthood through specialist and tailored support.
The transition at 18 from the youth justice system to the adult criminal justice system can be destabilising. The prevalence of vulnerabilities including mental health needs, neurodiversity, experiences of the care system, violence, criminal exploitation, and racial disparities compound the impacts of this transition on young people. Practitioners working with young adults and children approaching their 18th birthday may benefit from drawing on this report in their representations. YJLC’s legal guide on Turning 18 is also a key resource in these cases.
Paul Hastings (Europe) LLP