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Young offenders face 'travesty of justice' because of backlog

Young offenders face 'travesty of justice' because of backlog

Hundreds of children will be convicted as adults because of severe delays in the criminal justice system, a charity has warned

Hundreds of children will be convicted as adults because of severe delays in the criminal justice system, a charity has warned.

A new report by the Youth Justice Legal Centre (YJLC), part of the charity Just for Kids Law, revealed that severe delays in the system are leaving children, families and victims in limbo.

“The impact on children approaching their 18th birthday will be grave”, warned the report Timely Justice: Turning 18 – and the charity has called for “timely justice” for them.

An offender who reaches 18 before they are convicted or plead guilty must be sentenced as an adult, though their age at the time of the offence must be taken into consideration by sentencers.

According to the latest data, 1,400 offences a year are committed by children who turn 18 before conviction but, the YJLC said, this is a “significant underestimate” and the number is expected to rise.

YJLC said young people who turn 18 before prosecution have their cases heard in adult courts so lose the opportunity to benefit from the youth justice system.

They lose access to youth diversion schemes; they lose the right to anonymity during court proceedings; and because adult sentences have much longer rehabilitation periods this reduces employment prospects and prevent people from moving on with their lives.

It explained: “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 charity said the outcomes for children who turn 18 are vastly different to those of their peers who are prosecuted as children with damaging consequences.

The report said where “timely justice” is not possible the same sentencing framework should be applied to all those who offend in childhood.

It also recommended a 3-month time limit for a child being subject to release under investigation.

The charity’s chief executive Enver Solomon 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.”

Caroline Liggins, chair of the Youth Practitioners’ Association (YPA), said the youth justice system was struggling long before covid-19 and “now has to adapt and operate at even less capacity”.

She said: “The delay in progressing cases is inevitable.

“Measures need to be put in place to ensure children’s cases are dealt with expeditiously and prior to their 18th birthday.

“If this cannot be done there should be at least the same sentencing options open for them after that birthday.”

Liggins added: “At the Youth Practitioners’ Association, we say there is a need for the system to support each other and to always push for cases to be dealt with expeditiously within the youth court. 

“We know that as soon as the child turns 18, in the court’s eyes they become a young adult and lose any of the sentencing powers and support available to them in the youth court which have been specially adapted with their youth and rehabilitation in mind.”

She also warned of the impact of delays mentally on the child from their day-to-day lives.

She says: “Lots have waited months even to know if they are to be prosecuted; we know that the tide is changing but not fast enough.”

The report said there is 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 before conviction. 

The YJLC has just launched a guide, Turning 18, which is endorsed by the YPA and helps lawyers navigate the different rules that apply to those turning 18 in the criminal justice system. 

It also looks at the impact on those young adults impacted by the rules.

There is a backlog of nearly half a million cases across the criminal justice system in England and Wales, the Times newspaper reported yesterday, with delays of up to five years.

The covid-19 crisis has exacerbated these delays.

The Criminal Bar Association has already warned the backlog will not be solved – even if all crown courts were brought into service under physical distancing rules.

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