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New report shows young people are under pressure to plead guilty

Article by Fair Trials

A new Fair Trials’ report, Young Minds, Big Decisions, has revealed that young people in England & Wales are being placed under intense pressure to plead guilty to crimes without fully understanding the life-changing consequences of their decision. In some cases, young people are given as little as 20 to 30 minutes to decide whether or not to plead guilty.

People in their early twenties are vastly overrepresented in the criminal justice system, and the majority plead guilty to the crimes of which they are accused. Research shows that even when someone is in their 20s, they do not have fully developed decision-making capabilities, which makes them vulnerable to ill-informed guilty pleas.

The research also found that are significant levels of distrust of lawyers and the legal system, with many young people preferring to rely on fellow defendants and prisoners for support and advice. As the barristers’ strike has highlighted, lawyers are overworked and poorly paid, and this is undermining their ability to provide the assistance that young people need to make informed decisions about their pleas.

Fair Trials’ Legal Director (UK & International) Bruno Min said:

“Young people have told us about a criminal justice system that is failing to give them the knowledge, information and support they needed to make the right decisions. Their experiences highlight the broader systemic failures that are undermining justice in England and Wales.

“No one should be coerced into pleading guilty to an offence they have not committed but the government has been introducing laws that incentivise more people to plead guilty and avoid a trial. Efficiency should not be prioritised over justice.”

About the Project

Fair Trials conducted a research programme to understand how young adults (aged between 18-25) make their decisions on whether or not to plead guilty. During 2021 and 2022, we reached out to prisoners across England & Wales to explain to us how they had made their choices, and we hosted group discussions in partnership with the Prison Reform Trust to understand, in more detail why young adults pleaded guilty, what sort of help they received when making their decisions, and what the consequences of their decision were.

Background

Adults under the age of 25 represent 10% of the general population but account for 30-40% of cases, including policing time, those supervised by probation, and prison entrants.  Young adult men are more likely than adult men to serve sentences for violent or acquisitive offences and more likely to be involved in robbery or low level drug dealing.  Young adults have the highest reconviction rates of any group: 75% are reconvicted within two years of release from prison.  Young adults serving community sentences have equally poor outcomes: they have the highest breach rates of adults serving community sentences.

Racial disparities are especially acute amongst young adults. According to official statistics from 2020, 5,124 of the 12,240 young adults (just under 42%) in prison were non-white inmates, amounting to a very large overrepresentation. By contrast, non-white people made up 28.4% and 21.17% of prisoners in the 25-39 and 40-50 age groups, respectively.

Young people in their own words

I just thought I would elongate the pain for my family. I didn’t want anything to happen to my sister. I knew I had gone to university and experienced life a certain extent so my life didn’t matter. I wasn’t guilty, so I should not have plead guilty, but I had no support system or anyone to tell me they would fight for me for my innocence. (Amina)

I plead guilty to the offence I was charged with… I have no faith in the system so always better to take the easy way… No one should be happy to be locked away from loved ones but I [get by]. (Kieran)

On support and assistance:

I just feel like that whole thing was very, very rushed. And that I was just someone to get through that economy. It was just another body to process. (Blake)

I think there’s very much a lack of support there. There’s a lot of pressure put on you. And I think… it can quite often feel the decisions already made for you. (Harvey)

If they’re getting paid the bare minimum, you’re going to do the bare minimum… With legal aid it is the bare minimum… they’re going to give you the bare minimum. (Jordan)

The workload that the people had that were working with me meant they just wanted to get me out of the way as quickly as possible anyway… it’s so incredibly busy with such massive caseloads. (Blake)

My legal team said in a professional capacity they can’t advise me on what to do, only that “the truth should be the right answer”. I only had 10 minutes to decide. (Charlie)

I feel like they need to tell us, really, that we can take control a bit of our own cases. I think this whole illusion that we can’t… (Jordan)

Our complete faith is put in solicitors and barristers who may well be qualified but they [are not] transparent, helpful and fast to explain everything to a layman (their client), which is unfair on every level as it’s a life altering decision/process. Further education qualification does not exactly correlate to being prof[icient] at the job and acting properly. There needs to be more accountability as a lot of solicitors/barristers are more interested in expediting the case to a conclusion for a pay cheque rather than care of the impact their lack of care will have on their client’s life. In this regard there needs to be more oversight/accountability or specialist vetted solicitors/barristers for certain cases/crimes. (Mourad)

On the information provided:

I told [my solicitor], “I’m not British, like what’s going to happen?” He was telling me, you know, “nothing”. He didn’t tell me to the extent where I can’t apply until 10 years… He didn’t tell me any of that. I literally only found out last month when I went to apply. (Elisa)

I was really badly advised, and I was on remand for 18 months… at no time did anybody tell me the consequences of my different types of pleas and nobody really advised me. (Cheryl)

I am not happy with pleading guilty but at 18 I trusted the police officer who gaslighted me, and had I gone to trial I would more than likely be found not guilty. I developed a severe dislike and distrust of the police and would never trust them again. I believe the police to be an institutionally racist part of society… The police often use young people’s lack of knowledge about the law to coerce them into pleading guilty especially BAME kids while indigenous kids may often be let off. (Reggie)

On health and disabilities:

The prison system is made up of mostly vulnerable people, right? So how reliable is a guilty plea anyway? (Luke)

A big thing… is just being able to understand the paperwork, something as simple as just being able to understand what they actually are saying. Because half the words that they use, you’ve never known them in your life. So, what do they mean? Even if it’s just putting it down in in the terms that I would understand, in layman’s terms… Just being able to understand the paperwork, could have a massive impact. (Niall)

Read the full report. For media enquiries, email pam.cowburn@fairtrials.net

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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