Home > Developing inside: transforming prison for young adults.

Guiney, Ciara (2016) Developing inside: transforming prison for young adults. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 59, Autumn 2016, pp. 12-13.

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On 31 May 2016, the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice published a report that examined the needs, circumstances and conditions experienced by young adults (18‒24 years) within the Irish prison system.1 The report was applauded by the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) as their own report in 2015 drew similar conclusions.2,3


Young adults in prison: why are they unique?

Drawing on theory and research from the fields of criminology, sociology and psychology, it is argued that young adults aged 18 to 24 form a unique but distinct group, and in consequence should be treated differently to older prisoners. Characteristics of this cohort include: 

  • During the transition, biological and psychological developments can continue for some until their mid-twenties.
  • They experience changes in key areas of life, such as education, occupation, finances, living arrangements and romantic relationships.
  • Most grow out of crime and will have stopped altogether by the time they are 30.
  • They are more malleable and susceptible to peer influence.
  • They are more likely to behave in a manner that will bring them into contact with the justice system.
  • There is a higher level of risk taking; impulse control does not fully develop until mid-twenties.
  • Their lack of maturity diminishes their ability to understand and participate in justice proceedings.
  • They are not as equipped to plan ahead, reason, think abstractly or anticipate consequences. 

Notably, some behaviours and levels of maturity displayed by this cohort may resemble adolescence and may result in an assumption that this phase is an extension of adolescence. However, Jeffrey Arnett, who coined the term ‘emerging adulthood’ to represent this phase of development, defines it as a period that is ‘much different from adolescence, much freer from parental control, much more a period of independent exploration’ (p. 4).4 Proponents of the adolescent/emerging adulthood distinction argue that it is harmful to treat young adults as adults, particularly within the criminal justice system.


Young adults in prison in Ireland: historical review

The report provides an overview of the treatment of young adults within the Irish justice system since the 19th century. An important point to note is that historically there has been fluidity in the age classification of young offenders, with an acknowledgement that children on reaching the age of 18 do not become adults overnight.


Young adult prisoner: Irish context

A major finding of the report is that young adults are overrepresented in Irish prisons. Centred on data from the Irish Census of Population 2011, young adults represent approximately 11.94% of the adult population nationally. However, within prison populations young adults represent 24% of individuals committed, 20% of those sentenced to prison and 26% of prisoners on remand (p. v).1 Notably, the overrepresentation is more apparent in young adults aged 21 to 24, who represent 14.7% of the prison population but only 5% of the general population.


International responses

Despite the existence of international standards and guidelines, countries vary in their responses to the detention of young adults.5,6,7 In comparison to other European countries (e.g. Germany, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Switzerland, Sweden and Turkey), Ireland does not fare well in its treatment of offenders aged 18 to 24.1 The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe issued the European Rules for Juvenile Offenders Subject to Sanctions or Measures (ERJOSSM) to European states in 2009.8 This document provides guidance on regimes that are best suited to young adult offenders where detention is used as a last resort.



It is recommended that Ireland should avail of an alternative approach based on principles of education, rehabilitation and reintegration, where continuity of care of young adult offenders is guaranteed. A number of recommendations for reform have been put forward: 

  • There should be recognition that young adults (aged 18 to 24) are a distinct group who should be under the remit of the Irish Youth Justice Service.
  • Ireland should aim to reduce the number of young adults in prison.
  • Young adults should be accommodated in detention centres that are humane and designed specifically for them and their age group.
  • Young adults that are detained and prison officers should be in settings where they both feel safe.
  • There should be greater accessibility to specialised services within prison and upon release in the community.
  • A new regime for young adults in prison should be provided.
  • Extended lock-up and ‘basic’ regime standards should be eradicated. On committal to a prison, young adults should be placed in the ‘enhanced’ accommodation standard (p. 67).1
  • Young adult offenders should be included in operational decision-making of the detention centre and prison.
  • There should be a reduction of remand. However, when necessary, all detention centres should have dedicated remand facilities.
  • Motivation and support to abstain from drugs in the prison setting should be provided, while also providing harm reduction measures.
  • Training of prison staff should be enhanced and avail of an evidence-based approach that is based on best international policy and practice. 

1 Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice (2016) Developing inside: transforming prison for young adults. Dublin: Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice. Retrieved 5 August 2016 from https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/25588/

2 Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) (2016) IPRT welcomes report by the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice into the needs of young adults (18-24) in prison [online]. Retrieved 5 August 2016 from http://www.iprt.ie/contents/2918

3 Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) (2015) Turnaround youth: young adults (1824) in the criminal justice system. The case for a distinct approach. Dublin: IPRT. Retrieved 5 August 2016 from https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/23921/

4 Arnett JJ (2004) Emerging adulthood: the winding road from the late teens through the twenties. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Retrieved 5 August 2016 from http://jeffreyarnett.com/EmerAdul_Chap1.pdf

5 Transition to Adulthood Alliance (2010) Young adults and criminal justice: international norms and practices. London: Transition to Adulthood Alliance. Retrieved 5 August 2016 from http://www.t2a.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/T2A-International-Norms-and-Practices.pdf

6 Council of Europe (2003) New ways of dealing with juvenile delinquency and the role of juvenile justice. Strasbourg: Council of Europe Publishing. Retrieved 5 August 2016 from https://www.crin.org/en/library/legal-database/council-europe-recommendation-rec200320-concerning-new-ways-dealing-juvenile

7 Dünkel F and Pruin I (2012) Young adult offenders in juvenile and criminal justice systems in Europe. In Lösel F, Bottoms A and Farrington DP (eds) Lost In transition: young adult offenders in the criminal justice system. Abingdon: Routledge.

8 Council of Europe (2009) European rules for juvenile offenders subject to sanctions or measures. Strasbourg: Council of Europe Publishing. Retrieved 5 August 2016 from https://book.coe.int/eur/en/children-s-rights-and-family-law/4221-european-rules-for-juvenile-offenders-subject-to-sanctions-or-measures.html

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