The Magistrates’ Association (“MA”) recently published a report of the findings of research into the consideration of maturity as a factor in decisions made in the magistrates’ courts. The overarching finding was that the issue of maturity is not often raised in magistrates’ courts. The main recommendations from the report are that magistrates would like more independent assessments on maturity to be carried out before the first hearing, and that training needs to be provided to magistrates to provide them with an understanding of maturity and how it affects both the participation of young adults in court proceedings, and sentencing decisions.
The Magistrates’ Association report includes a detailed summary of the academic research into the concept of maturity and the findings of a survey of magistrates, a series of focus groups with magistrates and a roundtable with other court participants.
The academic literature makes clear that a more sophisticated understanding of maturity is necessary in order to consider how maturity, or a lack thereof, may affect culpability. The neuroscientific research identifies the following key points:
- Brain development continues until a person is in their mid-twenties
- Injury or trauma can slow, or arrest, aspects of brain development
- Impulsive behaviour in adolescents is not due to lack of cognitive development or reasoning, but due to the inconsistent development of socio-emotional processing
- The key aspects of maturity are temperance (controlling impulsivity), perspective and responsibility, in that order.
The report also identifies that the academic research lends support to the concept of ‘Young Adult’ courts, or a regime which allows youth justice provisions to be applied to young adults as is the case in Germany and the Netherlands.
The survey and focus group findings included:
- Maturity was not regularly raised as an issue
- Where maturity was raised this was most often by the defence, followed by the probation service
- Magistrates and legal advisers did sometimes raise maturity as an issue but it was not common practice
- Magistrates needed help distinguishing between issues of maturity and other vulnerabilities
- Reliable and robust assessments were key in assisting magistrates to respond appropriately to a lack of maturity
- Magistrates recognised the importance of this issue in relation to making good sentencing decisions, particularly as they relate to successful rehabilitation.
The overall conclusion identifies positive outcomes about the magistrates’ attitudes to considering maturity as relevant issue, and rightly identifies the urgent need for effective training on the interplay between maturity and offending behaviour. This is particularly salient when considering the focus group research findings, which provided valuable insight into the attitudes of magistrates towards the issue of maturity and their willingness to consider it as a factor affecting culpability. Some of the quotes attributed to magistrates in the report included:
- “for most (male) defendants between 18-24 immaturity is a fact of life and the main reason they are there anyway.”
- “[t]here are many adults well onto their thirties and forties who demonstrate immaturity in decision making”
- A remark that raising immaturity was often “just trying to hoodwink the bench into lenient sentencing”
- A significant number of respondents felt that young adults should not ‘have their cake and eat it’ by enjoying the rights of adulthood without the responsibilities
These comments would appear to demonstrate a concerning misunderstanding of the concept of maturity, but despite these findings, 67% of magistrates surveyed said that they were ‘very confident’ or ‘quite confident’ they could respond appropriately to immaturity being raised in respect of how it affects the effective participation of the defendant and how it affects sentencing as a mitigating factor.
Magistrates need to consider whether they are dealing with an immature 18 year old, as opposed to an 18 year old who is as mature as would be expected at that age. Both will be entitled to cite age as a mitigating factor, but an immature 18 year old will undoubtedly require additional support throughout the court process and may also have lower culpability if the offence committed was one which, for example, was committed impulsively. Citing immaturity as a relevant factor is therefore far from a blanket “buzz phrase” to be “weaponised” by defence solicitors, as some magistrates commented.
The research makes clear that young adults are still maturing until their mid-twenties, and that rates of maturity will therefore vary amongst young adults. Importantly, the research identifies that reaching maturity is one of the most important factors in desistance from offending. Magistrates should therefore be aware of maturity as a dynamic and evolving process, and not consider immaturity to be a static state or character flaw.
 MA Report page 46
 MA Report page 46