Serious terrorism sentence for adults aged under 21: England and Wales

Part of Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 30th June 2020.

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Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice) 2:45 pm, 30th June 2020

I am sure that these amendments come as no surprise to the Minister and other members of the Committee, given my interrogation of our witnesses during the oral evidence sessions over the past few days. This area needs particular attention from the Government, and I intend to press the amendment to a vote—unless, of course, the Minister comes up with an appropriate answer. On the basis of all this kindly co-operation and friendliness that we are sharing, and our intention to prove to the public that we can work across parties, perhaps he might surprise me a little.

Amendment 37 would require that when a court considers a serious terrorism sentence for a young adult under the age of 21, the pre-sentence report must take account of the offender’s age and consider options other than a serious terrorism sentence for rehabilitation and reducing harm. It means that the court must also take into account the issues raised in the pre-sentence report and whether it constitutes exceptional circumstances under proposed new section 268B(2).

We need a basic recognition in the Bill’s sentencing framework that, simply put, young adults and adults are inherently different, not only in terms of maturity, but in their potential for rehabilitation. Regarding the level of maturity, numerous organisations, such as the Howard League, have advocated for this proposal. It has been recognised in reviews such as the Lammy review, and by the Justice Committee. Why is it not recognised in the Bill?

As we have said from the outset, serious terrorist offences deserve a serious sentence, but it is still important to consider the age of the offender when other offences of a non-terrorist nature are committed. Although the amendment is specific to under 21s, in line with the Bill, evidence of maturation suggests that young adults up to the age of 25 ought to be considered as a separate group requiring a distinct response from criminal justice agencies.

The work in this area continues apace, and I have no doubt that Ministers may well have to address their approach to all manner of sentences for people up to the age of 25 when we can all be satisfied that the science proves, beyond reasonable doubt, that they ought to be treated differently. We had a considerable amount of evidence on that. I asked Peter Dawson from the Prison Reform Trust for his view on the different factors relating to young people. He said:

“The Bill should have a different sentencing framework for children and for young adults. At the moment, the law defines a young adult as someone aged between 18 and 20. It is not for this Bill to do, but at some point that should change to between 18 and 24.”

I think that is his opinion. He continued:

“At least taking account of the detention in a young offender institution provisions would allow some recognition of the fact that young adults are different from more mature people.”—[Official Report, Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Public Bill Committee, 25 June 2020; c. 34, Q75.]

We also discussed that issue with Jonathan Hall, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, who said that the point he was making was that

“there is recognition that people who are young and immature are probably more susceptible to change than adults.” —[Official Report, Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Public Bill Committee, 25 June 2020; c. 10, Q15.]

I asked him whether the bottom line was that with young people, there was perhaps a greater chance of change; he had said that there might be greater opportunity for reform than with those who are considerably older. Mr Hall responded:

“That is what judges are increasingly finding.”—[Official Report, Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Public Bill Committee, 25 June 2020; c. 10, Q16.]

I want to refer to a little more of Jonathan Hall’s evidence. He said that he believed that a younger person dimension needed to be considered in the Bill:

“One of the final points I make in my note about removing the Parole Board’s role is that, again, if it is right that children are more likely to change, and as a matter, perhaps, of fairness, one ought to give them the opportunity, then removing the opportunity to say, at the halfway or two-thirds point, ‘I have now genuinely changed; that was me then and this is me now,’ where it can be shown to the satisfaction of the Parole Board, does seem a little bit—I would not necessarily say ‘unfair’, but it fails to recognise the difference between adults and children.”—[Official Report, Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Public Bill Committee, 25 June 2020; c. 11, Q18.]

The current science and evidence tend to relate to people under 21, some of whom are a long way from full maturity. Analysis from the Royal College of Psychiatrists states that in terms of brain physiology, the development of traits such as maturity and susceptibility to peer pressure appear to continue until at least the mid-20s. That view was supported by the Justice Committee, which reported in 2016 that the growing body of evidence drawing on criminological, neurological and psychological research had led the Committee to conclude that young adults’ characteristics and needs made them distinct from older adults in terms of both their needs and their outcomes. There is no distinction in the Bill that recognises what the Justice Committee had to say.

The “Judging Maturity” report by the Howard League for Penal Reform also cited research that found the following:

“For the purposes of informing sentencing practice, the neurological and psychological evidence that development of the frontal lobes of the brain does not cease until around 25 years old is particularly compelling. It is this area of the brain which helps to regulate decision-making and the control of impulses that underpins criminal behaviour.”

As the Minister knows, I support trusting the experts where there is a significant trend. The trend of opinion from experts seems to be that we need to recognise the differences in maturity and development of young adults. In 2016, the Justice Committee reported:

“Dealing effectively with young adults while the brain is still developing is crucial for them in making successful transitions to a crime-free adulthood.”

Research into the success of interventions aimed at tackling radicalisation suggests that approaches that encourage young people to engage in education and training may be particularly beneficial, and that early interventions to encourage young people to undertake that education and training can be capable of successfully challenging radicalisation.

We talk a lot about rehabilitation, but we do not do enough of it. Labour Members do not want young offenders to be condemned to a life with no opportunity for rehabilitation when it has been reported to be successful in early adulthood. We can reform and rehabilitate, but doing so is a choice.