MPs have today called for a major overhaul in the way that young adult offenders are dealt with.
Young Adult Offenders Report
The Commons Justice Committee has published a report that takes to task the ways in which the specific vulnerabilities of offenders aged 18-25 are overlooked by the criminal justice system.
Chief amongst those vulnerabilities are the high number of young adults in prison with learning difficulties or autism – at an extraordinary rate ten times higher than in the general population. MPs argue that there is a very strong case for treating these offenders and other 18-25 year olds differently because their brains are still developing and as such they act compulsively and do not weigh up the long term effects of their actions. When they enter the Criminal Justice System they may be imprisoned for their actions. This matters, because young adults have higher re-conviction rates, with 75% returning to crime within two years of being released. Without proper care and treatment they tend to reoffend, harming both their life prospects and also, of course, society.
Autism and the Criminal Justice System
For those of us who practice in criminal defence, none of this comes as a surprise. If you do youth court work, or cases involving young adults, learning and behavioural difficulties and autism are conditions that you need to know about in order to do your job well. They should mean you take a different approach to a case, right from the start. But is this recognised by others? I remember despairing at the words of a district judge in my local youth court, who interrupted my mitigation on behalf of a 15 year old with ADHD who had ‘kicked off’ in his care home and committed criminal damage. He visibly rolled his eyes when I attempted to put the boy’s behaviour in the context of his lack of impulse control and said: “that’s all very well Ms Preston, but your client does of course know the difference between right and wrong, yes?”.
Such remarks from the bench are specifically touched on in the Committee’s report as being totally wrong. It calls for all young adult cases to be allocated to specialist magistrates and judges who currently deal with youths. But my experience above would suggest that is not enough. Some on the bench who deal with youths do so with great sensitivity and awareness, but so many at present do not. Specialists are indeed needed, but they must be properly trained. Current training of the judiciary and magistrates on the needs of young adults (and youths) is unfortunately inadequate and needs an overhaul.
Improvements to the Criminal Justice System
The report comes up with many suggestions for change which would massively improve outcomes for those involved, including:
- specialist training for prison and probation staff;
- interventions aimed at young adults rather like a ‘pupil premium’ but for prisons and community rehabilitation companies (as they now are);
- legislative change to recognise the developmental status of young adults;
- further emphasis on maturity in sentencing guidelines; and
- young adult courts.
All of those suggestions would I think make a significant difference and are to be commended.
Is the Government likely to enact this Report?
There has quite rightly been a light shone on the treatment of vulnerable adults who appear as witnesses in court, but what of defendants? At present, you might think that when they turn 18 they are effectively left to fend for themselves in an adult system which is very bad at turning their behaviour around. This benefits nobody – and some might call it scandalous that those with learning difficulties and autism are criminalised for their conditions.
With the crisis in the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, which has seen funding collapse over the last ten years, the signs are not very good. Under diagnosis and a lack of support for children and young people (and their families) leads to young adults who may find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Yet the prison population is bursting, as well as expensive. Surely early intervention – as well as the suggestions put forward in the Committee’s report – will in the end save money, not to mention the pain of those involved? Young adults make up at present 40% of the prison population. We urgently need to get that figure down.
Lawyers themselves need to educate themselves about the specific difficulties that our clients may be struggling with. These difficulties can inform our whole approach to a case – and not just in terms of mitigation. If we do not know much about them, or how to spot them, then we may be doing our clients a disservice.
Advocacy Training – Dealing with clients with autism
The Inns of Court College of Advocacy is holding a conference on this very area this Saturday at Middle Temple called Vulnerability and Power – Maintaining the Balance – the Client’s Perspective. I am training delegates on protecting clients in the pre-trial stage and on dealing with clients with autism. My colleague Andrew Sperling is going to delivering a session on the disempowerment of prisoners. There is going to be input from the Bar, psychologists, psychiatrists, the National Autistic Society and from other solicitors. I am really pleased that such an event has been arranged – and I hope that we are at the start of a sea change in the way that vulnerable defendants and young adults are treated in the criminal justice system. The Committee’s report – if enacted – could be a fantastic step forward. Let’s hope the government listens.
Alex Preston – Specialist Criminal Defence Lawyer
Written By Alex Preston, Criminal Defence Solicitor and Higher Court Advocate. Alex has a particular interest in representing clients with learning difficulties. She has developed a specialism in representing those on the autistic spectrum and receives regular referrals from the National Autistic Society to do so. She has trained all solicitors at Olliers on the requirements of autistic clients and is on the criminal justice panel which meets at the National Autistic Society in London. Alex has also been involved in developing a strategy for dealing with autistic suspects being developed by Greater Manchester Police