Back to school…but is it time for a change?
The evolving challenges presented by young adult offenders spurred Parliament to launch a Select Committee inquiry into this difficult subject in mid-2015. The Justice Committee received written submissions in September 2015 and has since held a series of hearings to gather further evidence. Michael Caplan QC attended Parliament on Tuesday at the invitation of the Committee. Attending in a private capacity, Michael brought his extensive experience as a lawyer, Recorder in the Crown Court, and member of the Sentencing Council to bear on the discussion.
Young adults (i.e. individuals who are 18 to 20 years old) have particular needs that differ from those of both children and adults. The Justice Committee has already identified certain subjects of critical importance to addressing those needs in the context of the justice system. Foremost among them is the innovation of treating young adults according to their maturity rather than chronological age. The Committee has however, analysed diverse other subjects ranging from the unique difficulties that face minority ethnic youths to the question of how to protect vulnerable youths in custody.
Michael agreed with the Committee that court procedures should be adapted to accommodate the needs of young adults. Such adaptation might be as simple as amending the language used in court, or as complex as arranging specialist training for Magistrates who hear the cases of young adults. Whatever the adaptations may be, there is no question that the treatment of young adults by the justice system needs to be sensitively reconsidered.
Nevertheless, Michael identified certain challenges that confront would-be reformers. The overarching risk is that tailoring justice to young adults may cause over-specialisation and a more unwieldy court process. In addition, insisting on a better standard of justice for young adults will inevitably place heavier demands on the justice system. Such demands are at odds with the dwindling resources of the courts and the growing emphasis on efficiency under the new policy of Better Case Management. Any substantive reform would also require seed money, which seems unrealistic at a time when the courts can barely afford to run in their current state.
Michael was just one of several witnesses who, along with the Committee itself, showed a combination of fresh thinking and pragmatism that suggests the inquiry is making progress towards proposing a set of meaningful reforms of youth justice. It remains to be seen what those proposals are and, more to the point, whether the Government has the vision and initiative to take them forward.
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