A new report by the Youth Justice Legal Centre (YJLC), part of Just for Kids Law, reveals that severe delays in the criminal justice system are leaving children, families and victims in limbo, resulting in serious consequences for those who turn 18.
System delay is the main reason children turn 18 years old between the commission of an offence and prosecution. The coronavirus crisis has exacerbated delays throughout the criminal justice system and the impact on children approaching their 18th birthday will be grave.
The most recent official data shows that 1,400 offences a year are committed by children who turn 18 prior to conviction but this is a significant underestimate and the number is expected to rise. Turning 18 prior to prosecution means the young people have their cases heard in adult courts and lose the opportunity to benefit from the youth justice system. This often happens because it can take months or sometimes years for the police or the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to make a charging decision. There are currently no fast-track options for children, including those approaching their 18th birthday.
The outcomes for children who turn 18 are vastly different to those of their peers who are prosecuted as children. The damaging consequences include losing access to youth diversion schemes, losing anonymity during court proceedings, only being eligible for adult sentences including much longer rehabilitation periods which reduce employment prospects and prevent people from moving on with their lives.
Just for Kids Law is calling for timely justice for those who commit offences as children. The report, Timely Justice: Turning 18, recommends that where this is not possible the same sentencing framework should be applied to all those who offend in childhood. It also recommends a time limit of three months for which a child can be subject to release under investigation. And the report identifies an urgent need to collect and regularly publish accurate data on children who are released under investigation and those who commit offences but turn 18 prior to conviction.
The Youth Justice Legal Centre has also developed a legal guide to help lawyers navigate the different rules, regimes and principles which apply to those turning 18 in the criminal justice system.
Enver Solomon, Chief Executive at Just for Kids Law, said:
‘It is a travesty of justice that due to unnecessary delays in the criminal justice system young people who have offended in childhood are not able to benefit from legal protections which exist for those who break the law as children. As a result of the pandemic and court closures the situation is much worse with yet more delays and even more children being convicted as adults. Timely justice is crucial for children, families and victims. Young adults who committed offences as children must be given the opportunity to build meaningful futures and be treated fairly.’
Notes to editors
1. Just for Kids Law is a UK charity that works with and for children and young people to hold those with power to account and fight for wider reform by providing legal representation and advice, direct advocacy and support, and campaigning to ensure children and young people in the UK have their legal rights and entitlements respected and promoted and their voices heard and valued.
2. The Youth Justice Legal Centre (YJLC) was set up by the charity Just for Kids Law to provide legally accurate information, guidance and training on youth justice law. YJLC is a centre of excellence on youth justice law, providing guidance and expertise on youth justice law to safeguard children’s rights in the youth justice system.
3. Figures sourced from the Youth Justice Board.
4. Youth Justice Legal Centre, ‘Timely Justice: Turning 18’ (June 2020)
5. The law considers those who turn 18 between the commission of an offence and the start of criminal proceedings to be adults. Even if they were technically adults at the time of the offence, it is increasingly recognised that young people do not gain full maturity on their 18th birthdays.
6. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (the “UN Committee”), the treaty monitoring body for the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, has made it clear that “child justice systems should also extend protection to children who were below the age of 18 at the time of the commission of the offence but who turn 18 during the trial or sentencing process.” United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (2019) General Comment No. 24 on children’s rights in the child justice system, para 31.
7. Youth Justice Legal Centre, ‘Legal guide: Turning 18’ (June 2020)