Young Adults and the Courts: Lawsuits and Harm

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Doctor Roger Grimshaw on the implications of a new study highlighting the long-term reduction in prosecutions against young adults.

New findings from the universities of Manchester and Sheffield have highlighted long-term trends in court appearances for young adults. ‘Young adults in the courts: declining numbers and growing disparities », as the title suggests, shows that young adults have become much less likely to appear in court over the past decade. However, the data implies that biases against minorities have led to uneven rates of court appearances and custody for non-white young adults.

This concise study presents tantalizing opportunities for further exploration of the factors driving the changes. It is therefore worth repeating the main points in detail before thinking about their meaning.

A decade of data

In England and Wales, the rate of court appearances among young adults (aged 18-24) fell by three-quarters, from 32 court appearances per thousand young adults in 2007-08 to 8 per thousand in 2018-19. This reduction predates the impact of court closures due to COVID restrictions. It also outpaced the drop in court appearances for older age groups. The overall detention rate for young adults has also fallen, but remains relatively high – twice as high as for those over 24. The declines occurred for a range of offenses including theft, burglary, violent and sexual offenses and criminal damage. Significantly, the proportion of appearances for drug-related offenses increased.

The major trends can be found in the figures published by the Youth Justice Council, which reports that the number of convictions of young adults (aged 18-20) decreased by 58% between 2010 and 2020; however, the Commission’s figures do not take into account a large population fluctuation, which is usefully addressed in this study.

Data from the new study also points to a different – ​​and harsher – treatment of minorities by police and courts. In 2017-2018, the rate of “white” young adults had fallen to 11 court appearances per thousand, a reduction of 63%. However, the rate among ‘non-white’ young adults was 22 court appearances per thousand – a reduction of 46% but still much higher than for ‘white’ young adults. Detention rates also differed: the immediate detention rate for “white” young adults fell 62%, while it dropped 53% for “non-white” young adults.

Possible factors

The magnitude of the changes indicates that something important has happened – but what? For some, it might be tempting to speculate about a new generational morality, but according to the researchers, delinquency has not decreased proportionately. The most likely explanations are institutional.

When assessing general contextual factors, it will be useful to consider the impact of court closures and a reduction in police numbers. In particular, when looking at crimes recorded annually, the charge/summons rates have has decreased considerably over the past seven years. In addition, the study shows significant geographic differences. The Metropolitan Police area has seen a relatively smaller decline, resulting in the highest current rate of appearances in young adult courts.

To shed light on the key generational difference, the authors’ intuition is to explore the long-term effects of prior criminal justice treatment on young adult outcomes.

It is appropriate here to first examine what has happened to recent cohorts who have experienced a systematic decline in interventions and an increase in diversionary practices. The long-term reductions in the number of new entrants to the criminal justice system have been dramatic: the rate per 100,000 population aged 10-17 was 1,929 in the 12 months to the end of June 2007 and 484 through the end of June 2013. The introduction of community resolutions and triage systems may have played a role in these trends. However, worryingly, the proportion of first-time entrants who were classified as “black” increased over the same period.

Steady declines in sanctions have occurred over the past decade, and in the year ending March 2020, 82% fewer children received a warning or sentence compared to the year ending March 2010.

Overall, historical patterns of first-time entrants and sanctions provide a plausible starting point for understanding changes in court appearances observed among young adults.

Discrimination

A crucial element in the apparent biases directed against “non-white” young men is likely to be general attributions – overt or tacit – of dangerousness. Our study of homicide prosecutions also confirmed the continuing importance of class action lawsuits against young black men.

“Gang” rhetoric casts a wide net of association, inflating the seriousness of any charge or court appearance. The growing role of drug offenses in legal proceedings involving young adults may reflect the stereotype of a generation of young black men allegedly in the grip of a violent drug market.

It is essential that the police, the CPS and the courts develop clear and rigorous policies that allow them to assess the information available on cases fairly and impartially, dismantling both ‘postal’ and racial stereotypes.

Institutional influences

Although it is too early to be certain, any specific change in policy toward young adults that may have occurred appears to have been negated by a confluence of institutional factors operating at the system level.

The long-term effects of reducing youth justice intervention need to be explored in depth in future research and translated into policy analysis. Relentless pressure is needed if the emerging lessons are to be applied equally to minorities who are currently deprived of them by discriminatory assumptions and practices.

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