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Joint-up working when it comes to young adults

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I don’t know about you, but the day I turned 18 I didn’t suddenly feel I’d undergone a miraculous transformation from child to adult. I still had the same anxieties and the same bad habits - I was still in the process of maturing. The evidence from neuroscience is clear that the adult brain is not fully mature until the mid 20s, so I know I wasn’t unique in not feeling like quite a grown up as I opened my cards.

I was lucky in having a family to support me in those faltering steps towards adulthood, who were there for me even when I made mistakes. Not everyone is so fortunate though – and for many young people, entering adulthood can be a chaotic and painful process.

As we know, some take the wrong path and find themselves drawn into criminal behaviour. Shockingly, although 18 to 24 year olds make up 9% of UK population, that age group accounts a third of all those sent into custody each year and a third of probation’s caseload.

It goes without saying that the deleterious impact of crime on communities can be profound – and that for local authorities, the involvement of young people in criminal justice clearly has major cost implications.  Many of the young people are those in the care of the local authority – and indeed all young people detained in custody are now automatically given “looked after” status, making them the wards of their local authorities.

Although it may seem glaringly obvious that we all mature at different rates, too often institutions fail to reflect this reality in their dealings with young people, instead regarding adulthood and its attendant responsibilities as being switched on automatically on a young person’s 18th birthday.

The Transition to Adulthood (T2A) Alliance is a coalition of 12 criminal justice, health and youth organisations committed to finding better ways of supporting young people in the transition to adulthood throughout the criminal justice process.

Over the past four years, the Alliance has helped build a compelling body of evidence, through research work and through pilot projects in Birmingham, London and Worcester. Assessments so far have found that by developing multi-agency programmes which treat young adults as a distinct group with specific and complex needs, encouraging results can be secured. A study of the young people taking part in our pilots found a reconviction rate of just 9%, while employment trebled and the number classified as NEET halved.

The approach we encourage is one of closer co-operation between key local agencies based on a shared commitment to diverting young people away from crime.

In practice this means Probation Services, Youth Offending Teams, Police and local services dealing with issues such as drugs, alcohol and mental health acting in consort to reduce reoffending rates and achieve real cost benefit. More information on the various points at which earlier and more effective interventions can be made are set out in T2A’s ‘Pathways from Crime’ report (http://www.t2a.org.uk/pathway/).

Since last year, trials have been in place in four areas of the country, under which local authorities take budgetary responsibility for the costs associated with custody for young offenders, while the new Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act will devolve the budgets to Local Authorities for custodial remand places for those up to age 18.

If successful, this local accountability model could be become the norm. This may provide the opportunity for new ways for local authorities to address the great strain placed on local services by the ripple effect of criminal activity, regardless of the age and legal status of those committing it.

At a time when budgets are more tightly squeezed than ever, the prospect of taking a lead in co-ordinating a multi-agency approach to young people in criminal justice may sound both daunting and costly. Yet austerity can be the mother of innovation. If well-executed, the rewards of more effective commissioning aimed at developing a holistic approach to cutting reoffending are potentially great, in terms of increased community safety, better futures for young citizens and precious financial resources preserved for key front-line services, not mopping up the costs of crime.

In the years to come, councils and other local agencies may increasingly find that default fragmented approaches, with a tin ear to the unique needs of young adults, are simply not affordable.

Joyce Moseley OBE, chair of the Transition to Adulthood Alliance

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