Key findings

  • Seeing transition as simply a change of supervising authority ignores broader issues and the full range of important milestones.
  • Well-organised multi-agency arrangements and clear lines of responsibility between agencies can help to reduce uncertainty.
  • With appropriate support, transition can be leveraged to aid desistance – it is the time at which most young people desist from criminal activity.
  • Brain development and the development of maturity is an individualised process that can continue until the mid-twenties.
  • Transition can be a dangerous time with safeguarding services falling away. A Transitional Safeguarding approach can be used to address safeguarding concerns.


Transitions between youth and adult services present various risks:

  • transitions occur at a period of peak offending (at age 18) for some individuals
  • transitions risk breaking up supportive and trusting relationships with youth justice service (YJS) case managers which have sometimes been built up over years, to be replaced with relationships with more distant probation case managers
  • transitions between youth and adult probation services can coincide with other transitions away from youth services that might also be supporting the young person, such as movement from children’s homes, children’s social care and college education. A number of statutory services, such as mental health, have higher thresholds for involvement with adults than for children, and the young person thus faces losing a great deal of potential and actual support, often at the time when they most need it.

At the same time, there are pressures of being considered an adult, rather than a child, with an expectation that the young adult seizes the initiative and provides for themselves, potentially adding to the stresses.

Official statistics are lacking in relation to the number of young people that transition between youth and adult services each year.

Summary of the evidence

Recognising all transitions

Transition can be understood as the administrative process concerning the change of supervising officer from YJS worker to probation officer. It can also be understood as the process of maturation between adolescence and adulthood. While the process of changing supervisory authority can itself be difficult and contains many potential points of failure, the timing of that change, during a period around the 18th birthday, coincides with a number of other transitions between other youth-focused agencies to their adult counterparts, or sometimes to no other service at all. Focusing narrowly on the change of supervisory authority risks ignoring many very important milestones for the supervised young adult, including many that may be sources of profound destabilisation for them. Successful transition must therefore be holistic, taking into account not just the process of transition, information transfer and assessment and planning that come with changing agency, but also taking into account all of the other transitions that the young person may be going through at the same time, and all understood in the context of their maturity.

An evaluation of the Transitions to Adulthood Pathway Programme found that well-organised multi-agency arrangements helped the projects to operate effectively. It was helpful to have clear written agreements that provided clarity about roles and responsibilities between the partner agencies. Data sharing protocols and co-habitation between teams were also found to help operational effectiveness.


While transition – both bureaucratically and developmentally – can be fraught with risks, it is also the period at which most young people desist from criminal activity. With appropriate support, young people who are already in the process of redefining themselves can be helped to forge a new, non-criminal identity and to move towards emotional and psychosocial maturation. Evidence from the US shows that key to working with young adults is:

  • forging community links
  • individualising provision
  • improvement and goal-based work rather than sanction and time-based work
  • a focus on strengths, not deficits
  • mistakes being seen as teaching opportunities, instead of failures that demand punishment.

While evidence from the UK suggests that conditions should be developed to support desistance by:

  • employing multi-disciplinary approaches, being specific about what appropriate services are available, and taking account of ease of access and relevance to this age group. It is important to recognise the specific needs of young adults in terms of establishing stability in their accommodation, employment and family relationships
  • making links with local colleges and finding out about local employment opportunities to inform realistic discussions with young adults that explore their aspirations and begin to help them make decisions about their future
  • developing the individual’s skills and confidence to make use of local services and resources
  • incorporating a family dimension, recognising that this age group may have a different relationship with their family of origin than older people who have formed their own family groups, many of whom may be parents themselves.

The process of maturation

The age of majority in the UK is 18; after the 18th birthday, individuals are treated legally as adults. With the label of adult comes the expectation to act in an adult manner. However, adolescence – the period between childhood and adulthood – is a flexible physical, developmental and social construct that has changed over time.

Brain development, particularly of the pre-frontal cortex (and its links with the limbic system, which manages, amongst other things, consequential decision making), can continue into the mid-twenties. Treating adolescence as covering the period from 10 to 24 years of age corresponds more closely to adolescent development. The effects of incomplete development and maturity can be profound and can leave young adults more sensitive to emotional triggers and more likely to engage in risk taking and aggressive behaviour. Adolescents and young adults are also prone to valuing short-term rewards over long-term outcomes, particularly when those rewards relate to social standing within their peer group. This can skew perspective when presented with the opportunity to engage in risky behaviour, which can have potentially long-term negative consequences such as receiving a criminal record.

The natural process of maturation can also be stalled or delayed by adverse childhood experiences, including the trauma that can come with involvement in the youth justice system. Periods of time in care or custody while a child should be explored to see whether these periods have affected developmental maturity.

Find out more about adversity and trauma


YJSs have a statutory responsibility for safeguarding children under their supervision and this work is accorded a great deal of prioritisation. Adult probation does not have the same responsibility and while safeguarding is still a concern, the bar is higher and the options to respond are fewer. But transition between childhood and adulthood is a time period when young people can be at greater risk. A study in 2022 defined the safeguarding challenges facing young adults in particular as falling into four themes:

  1. the harms and structural disadvantages facing many young people
  2. the developmental needs and characteristics of adolescence and emerging adulthood
  3. the evident contradictions regarding young people’s perceived capacity and capabilities
  4. the human and economic effects of the current binary approach to safeguarding children and adults.

Factors that affect the safety of young people can be addressed by adopting a Transitional Safeguarding approach, which is a holistic framework with six core principles. It is designed to be flexible and to allow providers to work with these principles in the context of their local circumstances. The six principles are:

  • evidence informed – based on evidence from research and data, combined with professional expertise
  • ecological perspective – considering the various ecosystems that influence the young person such as individual, family, peers, community, etc
  • developmentally attuned – professional response reflects the individual needs of the young person and their circumstances particular maturity
  • relational – recognises the impact of trauma and the young person’s involvement in harmful contexts or behaviour
  • equalities orientated – equity, diversity and inclusion are prioritised to address structural inequalities and discrimination
  • participative – Foregrounding the rights and expertise of young people to give them as much choice and control as possible.

To protect young people as they transition from adolescence to adult, and from YJSs to adult justice services, commissioners should encourage agencies to provide more fluid services across the transitional age range or, at the very least, encourage closer collaboration between adult and youth services.

The video below, produced by Camden Safeguarding Children Partnership, provides further information about transitional safeguarding.

Disclaimer: an external platform has been used to host this video. Recommendations for further viewing may appear at the end of the video and are beyond our control.

Inspection data

Inspection data

Transition arrangements have been inspected twice by HM Inspectorate of Probation, first in 2012 as part of a joint inspection along with the Inspectorate of Prisons, Ofsted, Care Quality Commission (CQC), Estyn and Healthcare Inspectorate Wales, and the second time in 2016 as a follow up to the 2012 inspection, this time inspecting alone.

The 2012 inspection looked at transitions in the community and in custody. Findings for the community were as follows:

  • YJSs did not always identify which cases would need to transition nor assess those that did. Those assessments which were undertaken sometimes made assumptions about the services available in probation and, because of this, more cases were retained than anticipated. Where cases had been retained for specific reasons, it was found that these cases were being supervised appropriately by the YJSs.
  • When cases were transferred to probation, other involved providers were not always informed. Youth health and education services often did not meet with adult provision to hand over a case, although where adult services were unavailable, some youth services continued to work with young adults past the age of 18.
  • There was often a lack of preparation of the young person for transfer, and most young people said that it was either not discussed with them or the options presented were unclear.
  • Case transfer meetings were not happening regularly but were found to be helpful when they did. They did not often involve parents or intervention providers, and this was a weakness. Some areas had created ways to make the transition more structured such as single points of contact or locally produced case transfer forms.
  • After transfer, providers had little information from YJSs about previous assessments or progress to date. There were sometimes large discrepancies in assessment of risk between youth and adult provision. While some providers had produced guidance, for young people leaving care there was often not enough contact with probation.
  • There was a lack of continuity across provision with much work not carried across providers. Some transferees found adult probation refreshing and more appropriate to their maturity, while others were unsure what was required of them.
  • Most areas inspected had a case transfer protocol which was more well known to YJS staff than probation. Lack of knowledge of the other service hampered good delivery of work, with YJSs not usually well aware of the interventions that probation could deliver and probation broadly not well trained on youth work or the work of YJSs.

The 2016 inspection was a single agency inspection focused on community transfers. The inspectors found that, since the 2012 inspection, there had been insufficient improvement in how transitions were delivered and that transitions were not always well organised, well recorded or smooth. There were, however, instances of good work which the inspectors believed, if followed by all staff, would ensure a smoother transition for children moving into adult probation.

In our 2022 Annual Report (PDF, 1 MB), we highlighted our concerns regarding probation staff vacancies across YJSs, which had wide-ranging implications, notably in relation to the effective and smooth transitions of children from youth to adult probation services.

Key references

Brewster, D. (2020). ‘Not Wired Up? The Neuroscientific Turn in Youth to Adult Transitions Policy’, Youth Justice, 20(3), pp. 215-234.

Holmes, D. and Smith, L. (2022). Transitional Safeguarding. HM Inspectorate of Probation Academic Insights 2022/03. Manchester: HM Inspectorate of Probation. Manchester. (PDF, 412 kB)

Hughes, N. and Strong, G. (2016). ‘Implementing the evidence on young adult neuromaturation: the development of a specialist approach in probation services’, Probation Journal, 63(4), pp. 452-459

Price, J. (2020) ‘The experience of young people transitioning between youth offending services to probation services’, Probation Journal, 67(3), pp. 246-263.

Sawyer, S., Azzopardi, P., Wickremarathne, D. and Patton, G. (2018). ‘The age of adolescence’, The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, 2(3), pp. 223-228.

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Last updated: 27 October 2023