Haphazard ways of dealing with young adult prisoners must be urgently addressed to cut reoffending rates, a watchdog has warned.
The chief inspector of prisons said there had been missed opportunities in helping criminals aged 18 to 25 rehabilitate, which could put the public at risk of them offending again on release.
In a report, Charlie Taylor said changes must be made to the way the 15,000 young adult inmates are dealt with.
Currently the majority are held in adult prisons, despite warnings made more than a decade ago of the problems this could cause.
Citing comments from the then chief inspector of prisons Dame Anne Owers made in 2006, who said moving young adults into mainstream adult prisons will not work or make a difference in cutting reoffending rates, Mr Taylor said: “It is disappointing that this warning was ignored and we now have a system where nearly all young adults have simply been placed into mainstream establishments, which have neither the resources nor the interventions to meet their needs.”
Custody should be an opportunity to provide young adult offenders with “structure, meaningful activity and opportunities to address their offending behaviour”, Mr Taylor’s report said, warning: “This missed opportunity to help young adult prisoners to improve their skills and reduce reoffending rates has consequences for society when they are released.
“Young adults were placed haphazardly in a range of different types of establishment without considering their needs.”
The report concludes most young adults are held in adult prisons without any coherent strategy and with little understanding of the way young men in their early 20s mature.
Young adult criminals have worse relationships with staff, are less likely to respond to behaviour management courses but more likely to be involved in violent incidents, according to the findings.
Although some examples of good practice by enthusiastic members of staff were noted, Mr Taylor said: “There is a lack of a coherent response at the national level.
“There is no explanation for the current configuration of the (prison) estate, with only three dedicated young adult establishments for a population of over 15,000, no rationale for placing the majority of young adults in establishments that predominantly hold older prisoners and no evidence that placement decisions are made on the basis of need.”
He added: “As managers plan for recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, there is both an opportunity and an urgent need for Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service to develop specific policies and services for this group.
“At the core of any future strategy is the principle that young adults need to be properly assessed and placed in an establishment that can meet their needs.
“If action is not taken, outcomes for this group and society will remain poor for the next decade and beyond.”
The report recommended dedicated units for young adults and a “properly resourced” strategy which provides good access to education and work.
Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “There is no excuse for the situation the chief inspector describes. Far from protecting the public through imprisonment, the Government is storing up a worse problem for the future.
“Young and disproportionately black young people are being denied a fair chance of building a decent future and growing out of crime.”
The Ministry of Justice said it was “developing a national strategy focused on supporting 18 to 25-year-old prisoners” which will also look at racial disparity.