The sentencing of young adults: a distinct group requiring a distinct approach

The Sentencing of Young Adults: A Distinct Group requiring a Distinct Approach

This article in the Criminal Law Review describes the growing legal consensus that young adults are a distinct group who require a distinct approach to sentencing, as shown by the emerging caselaw and guidance from the Sentencing Council.


There is extensive evidence that young adults continue to mature up to the age of 25, and that young adults in the criminal justice system require a distinct approach. This was well recognised among scientists and criminologists. However, until the case of Clarke (January 2018), the maturity of young adults was not routinely considered as a relevant factor in sentencing.

In Clarke, the Attorney General appealed the sentences given to young adults aged 18 and 19 as unduly lenient. The Attorney General argued that while maturity was a relevant consideration for their 17-year-old co-defendant, young adults should not receive a significant discount for age or maturity. The Lord Chief Justice rejected this argument, holding that the age of 18 “does not present a cliff edge for the purposes of sentencing … Full maturity and all the attributes of adulthood are not magically conferred on young people on their 18th birthday”. Significantly, his judgment cited a Lancet paper explaining that adolescent development (both biological and social) continues up to the age of 25.

This reasoning was applied in the subsequent cases of Balogun, Daniels, Geoghegan, Quartey and Attorney General’s Reference (Long; Bowers; Cole), three of which were presided over by the Lord Chief Justice. It was additionally cited in Hobbs (May 2018). In Balogun (November 2018), Holroyde LJ held that the Sentencing Principles for Children and Young Adults were relevant even though the appellant had been 18 at the time of the offences. The appellant’s sentence was reduced on this basis. In Daniels (February 2019) and Attorney General’s Reference (Long; Bowers; Cole) (December 2020), the Court of Appeal refused to increase sentences which took young adults’ maturity into account.

In Balogun, Daniels and Clarke, the court relied on pre-sentence reports to assess a young adult’s maturity. However, this was not always necessary: Lord Chief Justice inferred immaturity from a young adult’s backstory in Quartey (February 2019) and reduced his minimum term.

These judgments show that the Court of Appeal has adopted a distinct approach to the sentencing of young adults. The importance of welfare and rehabilitation in sentencing young adults, as well as children, was confirmed in Geoghegan (February 2019). Here, after concluding that the sentencing judge had paid insufficient attention to a young adult’s immaturity, the Court of Appeal passed a suspended sentence to increase the defendant’s prospects of rehabilitation.

The approach of the Court of Appeal is now reflected the Sentencing Council’s expanded guideline on age and/or lack of maturity as a mitigating factor, published in October 2019. The expanded guideline explains that young adults are still developing, have a greater capacity for change and are more susceptible to peer pressure.

There is every reason to hope that a distinct approach will now be routinely applied in cases concerning young adults.


“The combination of the stream of cases in the Court of Appeal and the Sentencing Council’s expanded guideline leaves no doubt that lack of maturity is a proper matter to bring to the court’s attention when young adults are sentenced. It is essential that all practitioners involved in sentencing hearings for young adults use the caselaw and guidance, along with appropriate evidence, to achieve better outcomes for young adults.” Laura Janes, co-author of the article and legal director at the Howard League for Penal Reform

In addition to citing the guideline, practitioners who are working with young adults should consider gathering independent evidence about their maturity by ensuring that all relevant information about young adults’ development and particular needs are before the courts, whether that is in the form of psychiatric and psychological assessments and/or pre-sentence reports.

The Howard League has published a list of sentencing principles which complement the expanded guideline on age and/or maturity, as well as a table which sets out how the mitigating factors in the Sentencing Council’s Definitive Guideline for children and young people can be adapted for young adults. Both are available on the Howard League’s website and can be downloaded from this page. Practitioners can use these resources alongside the expanded guideline.

Written by
Laura Janes, Legal Director, Howard League for Penal Reform