Make courts less intimidating for young adults, says thinktank

Defendants aged between 18 and 25 should generally be kept out of the dock, a justice thinktank suggests in a report highlighting how intimidating the layout of a courtroom can be.

The Centre for Justice Innovation points out that young adults make up 10% of the general population yet comprise 28% of reoffenders. Reasons for the disproportionate number of young adults in the criminal justice system include the time it takes for the brain to mature, neuro-disabilities, and a history of being exposed to violence, abuse, neglect, bereavement and criminal behaviour by other family members.

Today’s report, A fairer way: Procedural fairness for young adults at court, outlines why new approaches should be tested to ‘break the cycle’ of persistent offending.

The centre worked with multi-agency groups in Coventry, Ipswich, Leicester, Northampton and Swansea to develop a bespoke approach to dealing with young adults.

Practitioners and young adults involved in developing the model said the formality of adult courtrooms posed barriers for young adults, including bench distances and height. Those sitting in the dock had trouble hearing proceedings, which made them feel more stressed.

Young adults were also confused by the technical language spoken in court. The report states that some probation officers reported having to explain to the defendant what had happened at court. Defendants felt let down when they saw defence and prosecution lawyers speaking to each other ‘like they were friends’ in front of them. Some thought the court was run by the legal adviser and did not know journalists can sit in court.

Under the proposed model, the court layout would be adapted to ensure clear lines of sight between young adults and the bench, moving computer monitors and court staff, reducing the distance and height between the defendant and the bench, and keeping young adults out of the dock unless absolutely necessary.

To improve engagement during proceedings, legal jargon should be avoided and the roles of everyone in the courtroom should be explained. Young adults should be given an opportunity to have their say either through a verbal or prepared statement before the bench retires.

Phil Bowen, Centre for Justice Innovation director, said the evidence behind procedural fairness is simple: ‘People are more likely to obey a court’s decision when the court process is made more understandable and more transparent. The model outlined in this report offers a clear way forward to making this happen in practice.’

Monidipa Fouzder

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