Young minds, big decisions

An insight into the experiences of young adults pleading guilty to crimes in England & Wales

Published: (Last updated: )

Our new report, Young minds, big decisions, reveals that young people 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.

The majority of people accused of crimes in England & Wales are not tried in court. They plead guilty to their offences and are sentenced after waiving their right to present their defence, as well as a wide range of other fair trial rights. A significant proportion of these people are young adults, aged between 18 and 24, who make up about a third of criminal cases in England & Wales.

While young adults are legally treated as adults in criminal proceedings, research has shown that they share many neuropsychological characteristics as children, which often affect their decision-making processes and capabilities. Previous studies have shown that children are more likely to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit, on account of their increased susceptibility to incentives to plead guilty, and the additional challenges they face understanding their rights and making complex decisions.

Between 2021 and 2022, Fair Trials conducted research to highlight the experiences of people who have made plea decisions as young adults. Gathering testimonies from individuals serving prison sentences, and through conversations with people who had been criminal defendants as young adults, we sought to understand how young adults made their decisions, what support they received to help them make their choices, and the consequences of their pleas.

Click here to read the full report.