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Young adults in the justice system

Minutes of the Meeting of the All-Party Group on Penal Affairs, held on 22 November 2016 in Committee Room 2A

Speakers

Robert Neill MP, Chair, Justice Committee
Katie Pettifer, Director, Offender Policy and Youth Justice, Ministry of Justice
Joyce Moseley OBE, Chair, Transition to Adulthood Alliance

Present

Lord Ramsbotham (in the Chair)
Lord Beecham
Lord Elton
Lord Fellowes
Kate Green MP
Dominic Grieve QC MP
Lord Judd
Earl of Listowel
Lord McNally
Lord Ponsonby


Lord Ramsbotham welcomed everybody to the meeting.  He said that the recent report from the Justice Committee on this topic was one of the most important they had produced in recent years. He introduced the first speaker, Robert Neill MP, chair of the Committee.

Robert Neill MP began by thanking the Chair for his introduction, and said how honoured he was to see so many experts present. ‘We have been very grateful for the response that the report has had, and it is worth saying just a few thankyous before I start.  It was a major piece of work. It was one of the longest inquiries we have done so far in this parliament. Credit goes to the committee as a whole, and I do particularly want to mention Gemma Buckland, from the committee secretariat.  Gemma did much of the drafting before the members were let loose to pull it apart and make it less elegant than it started. It was Gemma who set up all the meetings and the background work and credit should go to her.

Why did we do this and how did we set about it? It has been apparent to any of us who have been involved in criminal justice over the years that there is a problem in the way we deal with young adult offenders.  It is something I was conscious of personally, when I was a barrister. I spent nearly thirty years at the bar doing criminal work. Even then, we could see there was an issue.  But as pressures within the system have become more acute, it was becoming apparent to us that there was both a social and a political problem that we needed to wrestle with as well.

As well as Gemma’s work, the other thing we particularly need to be grateful for was the amount of hard evidence we were able to assemble. That is what it is that has given the report the degree of authority we can perhaps claim for it.  Both the Barrow Cadbury Trust and the Transition to Adulthood Alliance (T2A) have played really important roles in dealing with this.

We did it against the background of increasing publicity about the problems that young people were facing in the prison system.  We have seen too many instances of suicide and self-harm, some really tragic consequences.  Everyone accepted there was a problem.  We have seen Toby Harris, an old sparring partner of mine going back to the days of London politics, and now in the Lords, producing what I thought was a very substantial and thoughtful report which came out with a number of significant ideas, not all of which were adequately acted upon.

We wanted to approach it in a slightly different way to some of the inquiries that select committees do, in that we wanted to talk to some of the users.  We held an informal seminar, and some of you in the audience were there, to explore the situation, and to familiarise ourselves.  Then we went on to meet some of the people who had been through the system, in two sets of meetings, which were quite stressful but very powerful. Some were with some of the bereaved families of young men – it is all too often young men – who had taken their lives in custody.  A whole range of social and economic backgrounds were represented.  It would be wrong to stereotype the young men that get into these situations.  Obviously problems had come into all their lives in one way or another.  We had some very thoughtful and helpful input from those parents, and they were very admirable people to have come and talked in that way.  We also met some young adults themselves who had been through the system, had encountered difficulties, but had then successfully moved on.  We always make a point of visiting institutions anyway – we have a programme of visiting prisons – but we made a particular point of visiting HMYOI Aylesbury, and HMP Wandsworth, to see what was being done with the young offenders there:  the intermixing is one of the issues.

So we had six oral evidence sessions and we also went to New York and Boston.  We sometimes think of our American cousins as being - dare I say it - Trumpesque in their attitudes to law and order, crime and punishment, and that is by no means always the case. In both New York and Boston they have what seem to me to be very sophisticated and very sensitively attuned means of dealing with young people in the criminal justice system.  So we wanted to go and see some good practice in what is essentially a common law jurisdiction – in other words within a system that isn’t alien.  That was one of the things we were keen to make something of, and that was pretty powerful.

What did we conclude?  The key failing, it seems to me, is that we do not treat, and have never systematically treated young adults as a distinct group within criminal justice.  The evidence that we had on a medical and a scientific basis was overwhelming.  They have specific sets of needs: they are different from the needs of children under 18, and different from those of adults over 25. That manifests itself in a raft of ways, some of which you wouldn’t always think about.  One of the key areas is that the brain is still developing neurologically up to the age of about 25. That has impacts, in terms of the lack of appreciation of seriousness; lack of inhibition in behaviour; suggestibility: all things that we would readily recognise.  We also picked up the high prevalence of acquired brain injury, something like 50-60% among young prisoners compared with older prisoners.  There was quite marked evidence around that, and the behavioural issues that that can trigger, which is never picked up and recognised anywhere within our current system.  We thought that was a very compelling piece of evidence. The Centre for Mental Health has estimated that traumatic brain injury increases the likelihood of a person committing a crime by at least 50%. So when we get to our recommendations, we say that one of the key things is to recognise that this is out there, very often unnoticed. We need to be much more systematic about screening and about picking that up.

Obviously there also issues more readily recognised: adverse life circumstances and so on.  But they come together with a particular intensity amongst many young offenders in this group.  That mixture of being exposed to violence themselves, in the home and elsewhere, abuse, neglect, bereavement, death or loss of parents, siblings and close relatives, criminal behaviour by parents or siblings: all that conjunction of a dislocated and fairly traumatic background.  All of these increase the chance of risk-taking during that period. Some quite interesting evidence that Gemma acquired for us was that about the age of 25 things tend to change. For a raft of reasons you are more likely to find stabilising factors coming into people’s lives.  So the trick is: can we deal with that cohort of people during that period in a way that makes it less likely that they will become entrenched in offending and more likely that they will be able to benefit from that stabilisation that seems to come from a level of natural maturity as well as social interactions - partner, jobs, those sorts of things - that help in that regard.

So that’s the background.  We don’t treat them distinctly. We know that there is a particular problem.  We have reduced the number of young people coming through the system which is good. There are fewer in custody, fewer coming through the probation system, and as we all know, the ones that are coming through are the much more challenging and complex cases. We don’t seem to pick that up. 

Let me now come forward to some recommendations that we make, and also to some of the things that we ought to think about after they have left custody. As well as a particular blueprint for the way in which we treat young people in custody, we also suggest some issues which need to be tackled separately afterwards: small things that we might not immediately think about.  The attitude towards disclosure of criminal records for example:  offences often not terribly serious in the overall scheme of things, but which remain on the record for a long time.  Disclosure makes it that much harder in a competitive labour market for those young people to get back into jobs.  There are some great firms out there – we all know the Timpsons and the Greggs – but there are lots of other people who, confronted with a straight choice, will go for the person who does not have that record. And that is a disincentive for those young people, just at the moment when we are hoping to get them into that settling down phase.  The financial issues: getting affordable accommodation, employment, benefits are generally lower for people in that age group; and a raft of flawed interventions when we don’t join up to recognise maturity. All those are really important factors too.  But the key bit is: distinct group, distinct treatment required within the justice system and afterwards within supervision in the community. 

What do we think needs to be done to take that forward? We have come up with a blueprint.  We can go into some of the detail, but the main components involve some overarching principles to inform a step change.  We have got to be radical about this. I’m sorry to have to criticise, but we don’t believe that NOMS and the MoJ have yet shown the leadership that is required to be brave enough to make this step change.  It is not for want of the information being out there, but it does require the will, politically and institutionally, to do it.  Those principles have to be founded on a clear philosophy that the system should seek to acknowledge explicitly young adults’ developmental status, focus on their strengths, build their resilience, and recognise unapologetically the degree of overlap of their status as victims and offenders.  That came very clearly through from all the evidence we had; that many of those who offend have also at some point in their lives been victims as well – and sometimes concurrently.

Secondly, understanding the risks and needs, and that, we recommend, should include a policy of universal screening by prisons and probation services, for mental health needs, neurodevelopment and mental disorders, maturity, neuropsychological impairment.  We need to do that in a way so that sentencers and advocates are better aware of this.  When they are advising somebody, how much is the lawyer acting for them aware?  Very little at the moment: it only becomes apparent at some point in the mitigation if at all.  What tools can we give sentencers to better understand this? And of course if they come into the justice system, either in the community under supervision, or in custody, the screening is all the more significant.

The third thing that we need to do is build the evidence base for the treatment of those young adult offenders, partly through expanding the availability of the very promising programmes that are out there, and evaluating those.  The MoJ, we think, should be examining whether or not the case can be made for investment to facilitate interventions aimed at young adults. For example could you look at the creation of the equivalent of the pupil premium for prisons and community rehabilitation companies, to reflect the challenging nature of some of the young people they deal with?  Courts and sentencing; we  have touched upon that.  As well as better information for sentencers, we think there should be a more systematic approach to the impact of immaturity as a mitigating factor in sentencing; and the inclusion of age and maturity in the code for crown prosecutors, defining what’s appropriate in terms of how you charge, and explicitly in terms of being a proper ground to be considered in terms of mitigation. Perhaps some further testing to look at young adult courts: that was suggested to us by a number of the witnesses that came forward.  Prisons were clarifying the policy erosion that has happened, very often through pressures on the estate, particularly around the distinction between sentence in a YOI and an adult institution.  We are concerned that there is far too much intermixing now.

Those are the things that we took forward.  We haven’t yet heard the Government’s formal response.  We have seen the prison reform plans.  I think that those have promise but we need to keep the pressure on the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary to flesh out some of the detail. We think we should revisit that key proposal of Toby Harris’ that there should be a person designated to look after and guide a young person through the system.  It was rather dismissed I suspect on the grounds of cost in the past. But now that we have much more knowledge, and now that we know the cost in the long term of these young people emerging from the justice system dysfunctional and more likely to reoffend, I think there is a compelling argument for saying that it is a worthwhile upfront investment, a fresh incentive to reassess our approach to all of that.  The Government wants to simplify and focus the estate.  We think it is very important that we use the opportunity to make sure that the new estate that is built, and any reconfigurations, recognise the vulnerabilities of young adults, when they can be helped, and others that are more of a threat to them.  That gives us opportunities too to build in more suitable facilities for all those screening, testing and rehabilitative processes that we want to see.  I think there is a great deal we can do there.  We think that one thing that we should be thinking about is in terms of the Government’s strategy to deal with some of the confusion around how and when we regard people as young adults as opposed to children and adult offenders.  Different tests, different triggers at different points: that’s not logical.  Should we be looking at the sentence of detention at a young offender institution going up to 25? Should we also be looking at the young adult court, on a similar basis? The two sit together logically very well. Returning again to the central recommendation, a dedicated person to engage with; the lack of a trusted credible interlocutor is something that came through very strongly in terms of the problems that young people had within the system.

So I hope that will do by way of introduction – a canter through what is a fairly substantial document.  I have almost certainly failed to do it proper justice, if you will forgive the pun.  I hope I have picked out the key bits. I am sure there will be some things that we have missed,   but I hope that is a start to discussion, so that we can get some responses and some feedback. Thank you.

Lord Ramsbotham thanked Robert Neill MP very much for his presentation and introduced Joyce Moseley, Chair of T2A to respond.

‘T2A is a ten year old programme set up by the Barrow Cadbury Trust looking at the needs and requirements of young adults in the criminal justice system.  We were early adopters of these views and ideas, and helped to create the evidence that has seen its way into the report. So we are delighted about it.  It does seem to fully endorse T2A’s position about there being a need for a distinct approach in criminal justice and in other public services for 18-25 year olds, if we are to get an effective criminal justice system.  I chair the T2A alliance, which is made up of fourteen charities – strength in numbers – so we provide a very strong voice advocating for this.  We also have a group of young people who also bring their own experiences of the criminal justice system (cjs) and I am pretty sure that many of our alliance members gave powerful evidence for the committee, and that that has been taken on board.

Overall our view is that your report is a landmark, and a visionary report.  T2A thinks it sets the arguments out very clearly, and is a very welcome and overdue blueprint.  We like the blueprint approach, which is very comprehensive and gives us the framework in which to develop a completely new system for young adults.  So looking forward to how we would like the Government to respond to your report, I’d say that we want them to take the opportunity to introduce a comprehensive programme of reform to improve the outcomes for young adults, and to adopt a distinct approach at all the stages in the justice system.  I am emphasising those words to say: please don’t pick and mix from this report.  It is a comprehensive report and it needs to be seen as a whole.  Such a comprehensive young adult agenda across the system would, we think, alleviate many of the problems that are showing up in the cjs at the moment.  We are all aware of the huge problems and pressures in the Prison Service, but changing approaches in the earlier stages of the cjs, whether it’s the police or the courts or whatever, will have knock-on effects throughout the system.  Positive changes earlier will eventually knock on to the prison system as well, which can only be helpful.

 It’s about tapping into what is a huge appetite amongst practitioners out there in communities about working in a distinct way with 18-25 years olds: pioneers who have led the way in developing very positive approaches.  I’d like to pull out just two parts of what we at T2A call the cjs pathway.  We would call upon the Government to support the piloting of dedicated young adult courts. T2A together with the Centre for Justice Innovation has been working on five sites – I think it is January that they get going.  It is a model that draws a lot from the youth courts. Especially important is the fact that they can be delivered within existing resources.  There is huge excitement and willingness amongst local people to work together, from the clerks to the courts to local police and crime commissioners, and to provide a more appropriate response to young adults as they come through the courts.  Many of you will know that young adults have the highest rate of breaches, which lead to heavier and heavier sentences.  These courts will look at trying to work with young people to increase compliance with the orders that the court sets, as well as better targeted probation interventions.  If we can reduce those breaches, it will have a definite knock-on effect and result in fewer people going into prison.

At the other end of the pathway are the prisons themselves, and extending the remit of detention in YOIs up to 25 would stop the very damaging practice of mixing young adults with the older adults in prisons. The evidence is coming through strongly that that is not really acceptable.  It would mean that could come to an end, and it also would use some under-used resources in the YOIs at the moment because you could move the older young adults into those where they could benefit from the specialist training that YOI prison staff have.

Amongst the positives I would just like to mention a concern we have. In the MoJ’s recent White Paper, which as you say has many positives, they say that ‘young adult men between 18 and 20 years old face different problems to older male offenders’ and they go on to say that they will look at providing a greater focus.  18 to 20? That really worried us.  Where have you been, MoJ? Haven’t you read the evidence?  Haven’t you seen the report? We just hope that the MoJ is not going to stick to what we see as a rather outmoded policy and legislative position.  It is actually against not only the Justice Committee’s report but also NOMS’ own commissioning guidance, and all the overwhelming evidence that the Committee has set out.  We need young adults to mean 18 to 25 year olds if we are to have a good strategic approach.

So, to sum up: the 18 to 25 year olds in the system are a huge untapped resource for changing and improving outcomes.  Because the brain is continuing to grow, they are adaptable, they can learn and change if they are given the appropriate help.  Treating them like adults, and barking orders at them, will not get the response from them that you need.  You need skilled staff who understand their needs.  It’s fair to say that most of us have been let down because there is no overarching strategy coming from the top about young adults – that is victims, of course, young adults themselves, communities - because what we have got at the moment is failing. The 75% reoffending rates of young adults says that the system is not working, that we need something new, and we need the Government to lead on this and to introduce an overarching strategy, and to tap in to those pioneers who are working out there, who could do so much more if they were working within an overarching policy.  The Government says it is still committed to a ‘What Works’ agenda, and this report is steeped in ‘What Works’:  robust evidence, clearly set out, from psychology, criminology, neuroscience. It’s a very strong evidence base.

T2A has been around for ten years and we are not going far. We are looking forward to working with the MoJ, helping them in any way we can to implement the Committee’s report, landmark and visionary as it is.  We want to see it implemented in full and without delay’.

Lord Ramsbotham thanked Joyce Moseley and introduced Katie Pettifer, Director of Offender Policy and Youth Justice in the MoJ.  He was very pleased to welcome her, and other NOMS and MoJ colleagues.  Partnership was crucial.

Katie Pettifer. ‘I would love to be able to stand up and give you the Government’s response to the report.  Unfortunately I can’t: ministers are still considering the report and deciding what they want to do about it.  In one sense that is disappointing, because it would be nice to be able to tell you, though in another sense this is exactly the right time for me to be here.  I am really grateful to be invited and to have the opportunity to hear views from around the table. I have brought several members of my team who are working on the Government’s response and who are far more knowledgeable than I am.  We will take away everything that is said and reflect it back to ministers, and give it really careful consideration.

That said, if you can take whatever I say as a personal view and know that I am not at this point speaking for my ministers, I will do my best to engage in a constructive way.  The first thing I would like to say, and I think I can speak for my ministers in this, is thank you very much for such an incredibly useful report.  Such a comprehensive collection of the evidence is for us as policy makers incredibly valuable.  Thank you very much to the committee and to everybody who contributed to it.  There are clearly a lot of areas where we are thinking along the same lines.  For us in the department, the importance of an understanding of maturity in the way that we develop our operational policy and the way we treat young adults of all ages in the system is very clear, and is something we are doing a lot of thinking about.  The types of questions that the committee has been grappling with:  what constitutes a young adult? Who should we be thinking about here? What is it that we do differently for them? - are also very much the questions that we are grappling with, both as policy makers and as people who are trying to deliver the system.

I think that the big question, then, is how we achieve that; through what changes; what the mechanisms are.  Some of the ideas that you have suggested, the pupil premium, the extended YOI, are options that ministers will have to consider.  And as a civil servant I am bound to say that I have to consider them with the whole range of operational implications that there will be, and the financial implications. One of the stark differences about thinking about 18-20 year olds and 18-24 year olds is that we go from 6% to 20% of the prison population there. What the set of interventions for that group might be that you could deliver with a different sized cohort is a big question for us, and we are working through all of that at the moment.

We have published a prison reform and safety work paper with a very strong emphasis on safety, and that sets out a set of measures for the entire population that will bring some benefits for young adults.  Amongst them is the desire to introduce dedicated officers who will work with a small number of prisoners and be a continuity of presence for them and guide them throughout the system.  That is something which seems to us to be extremely important in terms of making a difference.  We are also proposing to introduce a statutory purpose for prisons, which is something that was recommended in the Harris report, so I think we are making progress for everyone.  We are also thinking about what we can do that benefits young adults. 

The final thing I can say is that we are also very interested in what we can do earlier in the system.  Everyone can see the benefits of earlier intervention with offenders and we will be really interested to see what is happening with the pilots of the young adult courts. We have been having discussions about them and we will be watching that with great interest.  It is self-evident that the earlier you can help somebody in the system, the better it is for them and for the community at large, and, from a purely business point of view, for us financially.

So I think we have the same goals.  I can’t tell you where ministers will end up on the specific recommendations that have been proposed.  But young adults as a cohort, and I am talking about the 19-24s without prejudice to whatever we come out with, are hugely important for us and central to our thinking.  With the challenges we are facing in prisons on safety at the moment, they are over-represented in assaults and violence and they are 20% of the prison population. We need to meet their needs.  There is universal agreement on that.  The challenge is in deciding how we do it.’

Lord Ramsbotham thanked Katie Pettifer for her response. He said that he too had a special interest in acquired brain injury, in that he was Chair of the Criminal Justice and Acquired Brain Injury interest group. This interest stemmed from meeting a disturbed boy in Glen Parva who had been flung against a radiator by his father at three months old. He was glad that Professor Huw Williams’ evidence to the Justice Committee had been used in the report. Secondly, he mentioned that as Chief Inspector of Prisons he had recommended a director for young adults, as without an individual responsible nothing happened.  He had also visited Massachusetts.  Finally he drew attention to his private members bill on the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, drawing on very good work by the Standing Committee on Youth Justice. 

The Earl of Listowel thanked the speakers for their helpful presentations. He wanted to ask about whether there was any research on the impact for children of growing up without a father.

Katie Pettifer said she would take that question away. This would have implications for other departments too, including the Youth Justice Board.

Robert Neill MP agreed that this was a cross-departmental issue.

Joyce Moseley mentioned T2A research with Sheffield Hallam University on six pathway projects, seeking to establish what made a good intervention.  She would enquire whether this would touch on the issue of children growing up without fathers.

Lord Fellowes asked about the approximately 800 prisoners serving past their tariff date. Was it known how many of those were young adults?

Robert Neill MP said this had not been part of the Justice Committee’s inquiry.

Katie Pettifer said that she did not know the figures, but she suspected it was only a small percentage. Subsequently one of her team reported that there were 103 indeterminate sentences being served by those in the 18-20 year old age group.

Lord Ponsonby said he sat as a youth magistrate in central London. He wanted to ask about mentoring.  On a recent visit to HMP Chelmsford, which held 18-24 years olds as well as adult prisoners, he had been told by the governor and senior staff that mentoring of the young adults by older prisoners had good outcomes if properly managed.

Robert Neill MP said that the Committee had heard this argument too. He was sceptical, however, on the grounds that it was very convenient for the Prison Service, in that it justified not separating the two groups.  Although some older prisoners could be avuncular, others could be predatory, manipulative and intimidating. He thought it better to pursue the dedicated officer approach advocated by Lord Harris.

Joyce Moseley added that she too had heard enthusiastic prison governors advocating the same model, but she did not think the evidence was there to support it.

Katie Pettifer said that governors had reported that having older prisoners around was a calming influence on the young adults, and that running a prison for the younger age group was more challenging. This evidence was anecdotal, however.   She had not seen any specific evidence on mentoring.

Lord Ramsbotham noted the contribution made by link workers from the Disability Foundation for people with brain injuries in Leeds, mentioned in the report.  They worked with the prisoner both inside prison and for six months after release.  The same thing was being trialled in Wetherby YOI.

Joyce Moseley said that this was one of the T2A programmes so they would be getting research evidence around it.

Dominic Grieve MP wanted to ask about the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, which served at present as the biggest obstacle to getting young adults into employment after release. It operated on the fantastical notion that disclosure of convictions should not be a bar to getting work.  Was there any appetite for grappling with this? When would we provide some system either by which young people did not have to do this, or that there should be a central reference point to which they could make the request and get exempted?

Katie Pettifer said there was clearly a strong appetite to do more for all offenders on this. She did not know whether ministers would support it, but she knew many did.

Robert Neill MP agreed that there was a strong case, and said he suspected that progress was made more difficult because this fell between two stools departmentally. The policy lead sat within the Home Office, whereas the impacts were felt within Justice. There would be a legislative vehicle with the Courts and Prisons Reform Bill.  You could tack on the appropriate clauses, but this was often met with resistance. It just took the political will to grasp the issue.

Katie Pettifer added that this was a challenging time for the Government to legislate on controversial issues.

Robert Neill MP said that the current Secretary of State, like her predecessor, had been impressive in her commitment to making the whole custodial estate’s approach one of rehabilitation and redemption (to use Michael Gove’s phrase). The earlier in an individual’s criminal career you intervened, the better the outcome. It was down to all of us to keep making the case.

Lord Ramsbotham suggested the question be repeated on 14th December when the Secretary of State would be addressing the group.

Lord McNally said that Lord Ramsbotham’s private members bill offered another opportunity. On IPP prisoners, he had suggested that the Department should ask the Justice Committee to look at it, as there were prisoners jammed in the system for a long time. As regards interdepartmental cooperation, he had frequently suggested an interdepartmental committee at ministerial level. The fact that this would take place at ministerial level would give it the right level of authority.

Joyce Moseley agreed. An overarching government policy was needed to recognise the needs of young adults, for whom all support dropped away when they turned 18.

Lord McNally recognised this as a major problem within youth justice. By law, young people had to be released into adult custody when they became 18, though this was partly because of the law that protected children.

The Earl of Listowel mentioned the Children’s Social Work Bill going through the House at the moment which extended the rights of care leavers to additional support to 25.  He wondered whether the Justice Committee had also looked at the situation for care leavers.

Lord Ramsbotham added that support for those with special educational needs was also extended to 25, so there was a suitable climate for these changes.

Joyce Moseley noted, as a former director of social services, that although the legislation to protect care leavers was there it had never been implemented as fully as it should have been. She also said that all the markers of adulthood, such as leaving home, having a child, were happening on average seven years later than they did in the 1970s.  People were not maturing as quickly, in a whole range of ways.

Lord Ramsbotham brought the meeting to a close.  He reiterated the group’s satisfaction that the report had come out in the context of the White Paper – the first White Paper on prisons since 1991. The next meeting of the group would be held on Wednesday 14th December, when the Justice Minister, the Rt Hon Liz Truss, would be coming, at her request, to hear the views of the group on the White Paper.  He closed by thanking all the speakers for a very valuable evening.