The NCSL Blog


By Rebecca Pirius

Did you know that nearly one-third of young adults have been arrested by age 25? And that young adults, age 18-25, are the most likely age group to reoffend?

Lisa Jacobs, program manager for the Center for Criminal Justice Research, Policy, and Practice at Loyola School of Law.Young adults are overrepresented at every stage of the criminal justice system. But why? Policymakers are turning to science to learn more.

Research in neuroscience shows that the brain continues to develop well into a person’s 20s, and different parts of the brain develop in different phases. Most notably for young adults, intellectual maturity develops prior to cognitive maturity.

Why does this matter? Even though a young adult may know right from wrong, he or she may lack the maturity of judgment and self-regulation needed to override other pressures, such as susceptibility to peer pressure, risk-taking and impulsivity. Developing research in neuroscience and psychology suggests this may be a contributing factor in young adults’ justice involvement.

Policymakers are not new to discussions on developmental neuroscience. Think Roper v. Simmons, Graham v. Florida, and Miller v. Alabama—a trio of U.S. Supreme Court cases that examined criminal culpability and developmental maturity of adolescents. These cases led states to reexamine state laws on capital punishment and life sentences for crimes committed by juveniles.

Policymakers are also looking to societal factors that impact young adults’ decision making and behavior. Young adults experience violent crime and trauma at a higher rate than other population groups. And like other age groups, socio-economic, racial, and ethnic disparities persist for young adults.

Sociologists also note that key developmental milestones for this generation occur later in life than in past generations. Delayed life events, such as educational attainment, employment and independent living, can prolong the transition from childhood to adult. All these challenges increase young adults’ vulnerability to negative influences and potential justice involvement.

The good news, though, is that the research also tells us this population has the most potential to grow, change and reform. Since young adults are still maturing developmentally, socially and emotionally, they are able to “grow out” of criminal behavior and become productive members of the community. The next question is how?

At the end of January, policymakers from five states gathered in Washington, D.C., for the Intergovernmental Policy Academy: Young Adults and the Justice System to discuss possible solutions.

The policy academy is a collaboration among NCSL, National League of Cities (NLC), and the National Association of Counties (NACo) that recognizes no one agency or level of government can do it all.

With the support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the policy academy brings together key stakeholders from city, county, and state government to discuss improving outcomes for young adults in the justice system.

The five teams include representatives from:

  • Indianapolis, Marion County, Ind.
  • Overland Park, Johnson County, Kan.
  • Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo County, Mich.
  • Albuquerque, Bernalillo County, N.M.
  • Bellingham, Whatcom County, Wash.

Over the course of a year, representatives from law enforcement, local government, courts, and state legislatures will discuss challenges and strategize appropriate interventions and responses for justice-involved young adults.

The five teams are working to identify and align policies at the different levels of government to better serve this population group. Some examples include improving data collection and sharing, developing pretrial alternatives, and establishing young adult courts. The teams are learning from expert faculty, as well as from each other, all with one overarching goal: to improve outcomes for young adults.

In Washington, D.C., the five teams heard from Lisa Jacobs, program manager for the Center for Criminal Justice Research, Policy, and Practice at Loyola School of Law.

“Young adults are different and those differences matter …. We have opportunities to put young adults on a positive path," she said.

NCSL, NLC, and NACo’s work on young adults is a part of the Safety and Justice Challenge—an initiative to rethink justice systems and implement data-driven strategies to safely reduce jail populations. The Safety and Justice Challenge has awarded 52 jurisdictions more than $148 million. On Jan. 30, new grants for a combined total of $8 million were awarded to build on the progress and promise of work to date.

The policy academy’s work to reduce the young adult population in the justice system is just one way to rethink the system.

Rebecca Pirius is a senior policy specialist in NCSL's Criminal Justice program.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.