Looking to the Research
State and local policymakers and stakeholders are looking to the research to address the challenges facing young adults. To make criminal justice policy responses effective for this age group, researchers stress the use of developmentally appropriate and trauma-informed responses, while recognizing the transition from adolescent to young adult represents a period of increasing severity and lethality of offenses. More than a quarter of all violent offenses are committed by 18- to 24-year-olds.
Since young adults are still maturing developmentally and socially, interventions at this stage can positively impact their lives and trajectory. For instance, research suggests that young adults respond better to rehabilitative interventions than older adults. And since most crimes are committed before a person turns 25, most young adults will not continue on a criminal path.
While positive interventions can have a profound effect on young adults, it’s important to note that during this developmental period, negative experiences carry an impact too. For example, establishing strict conditions of supervision can set up young adults for failure, and exposure to harmful environments, like jails and prisons, can increase the likelihood of engaging in criminal behavior and exacerbate behavioral health issues.
Laboratories for Innovation
State and local governments are laboratories for innovations. As more strategies are tested and data is collected, more insight is gained about effective interventions for this age group. Below are examples of innovative justice system responses within the adult criminal justice system that focus on the distinct traits of young adult offenders. (Examples identified in this brief will not cover responses in the juvenile justice system, such as raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction. For examples of options of juvenile justice responses, see Emerging Adult Justice Project, Columbia Justice Lab.)
Innovative Justice System Responses
I. Pre-Arrest Diversion
Pre-arrest diversion has become an important component of front-end justice reform. Jurisdictions use pre-arrest diversion to route defendants with behavioral health issues away from the justice system, and instead, connect them with community-based behavioral health treatment or recovery support services. Pre-arrest diversion is particularly important for young adults, as they have some of the highest rates of behavioral health issues.
Pre-arrest diversion programs can assist young adults by connecting them to behavioral health services, peer and mentoring organizations, coordinated programs for prevention and intervention services, and organizations to assist in obtaining housing or employment. Pre-arrest diversion relies on cooperation between law enforcement officers, service providers and other community stakeholders. Legislators are in a unique position to fund cross-systems coordination.
States have acted to support training law enforcement personnel to recognize individuals with behavioral health issues, and in some instances, provide the framework for non-traditional law enforcement response procedures. Over half the states have laws requiring officers be trained to respond to situations involving people with mental health, substance use or other behavioral health disorders. Additionally, at least 12 states have enacted legislation creating requirements, guidelines, or both for establishing crisis intervention teams. Crisis intervention training can be particularly helpful when law enforcement responds to a young adult in crisis whose heightened emotional and behavioral responses can be interpreted as threatening.
Redirecting people to treatment, rather than jail, also reduces costs to the system and focuses serious, resource-intensive punishments on the persons who pose the greatest public safety risk. It can cost two to three times as much to house a person with a mental illness in jail than to use community-based treatment.
II. Pretrial Diversion Programs and Young Adult Courts
Pretrial diversion programs occur after arrest and continue through the initial court appearance. Such programs are prominent around the country—many taking the form of specialized court programs. Some common examples are veterans’ courts, drug courts and mental health courts.
Typically, a person accepted into a pretrial diversion program must complete a program agreed to by the prosecutor, the court, or both. If the individual completes the program successfully, the prosecutor typically dismisses the charges and no conviction results.
Pretrial diversion programs or specialized courts are often products of local and state partnerships that include law enforcement, prosecutors, public defenders, probation officers, behavioral health providers and judges. States can support these initiatives through appropriations, grant funding or statutory guidance.
A key feature of specialized courts is tailoring services and responses to an individual’s needs. Given the distinct needs of this age group, specialized young adult courts have become a popular intervention nationwide.
Young adults often face chronic homelessness and unemployment, and lack the basic academic, life and work skills needed to be successful in adulthood. Unlike older adults, young adults have not typically held a steady job, paid rent and bills, parented or supported a family. They are also highly susceptible to peer pressure and often lack strong, positive role models. Young adults have high rates of victimization and behavioral health disorders and can benefit from trauma-informed responses and incentives to participate in programming. Young adults are also prone to make mistakes and often need multiple opportunities to succeed.
The San Francisco Young Adult Court has addressed these issues by developing a program—unique to this age group—that is developmentally and trauma-informed. Each participant is assigned to a clinician who collaborates with the entire Young Adult Court team to “engage, motivate, and support the participant to stabilize his/her transformation into adulthood.”
In Illinois, the 2017 General Assembly authorized a First Time Weapon Offender Program that offers 18- to 20-year-olds who have committed non-violent offenses a chance to avoid a conviction. The pilot program “recognizes some persons, particularly young adults in areas of high crime or poverty, may have experienced trauma that contributes to poor decision-making skills….”
III. Court, Sentencing and Corrections
In some cases, a young adult may not be successful in diversion or diversion may not be appropriate. For young adults who go deeper into the justice system, traditional supervision options may impede their social and emotional development. For those with mental health disorders, detention increases their risk for self-harm, suicide, violence and victimization.
Recognizing this, several states have statutorily created court proceedings and sentencing and correction options specifically for young adults. They are designed to minimize negative effects but still hold the offender accountable. Some common components include confidential hearings, sentencing alternatives, coordination between youth and adult correctional services and programs, and availability of expungement or sealing of records.
In Massachusetts, the legislature created a probation program to “exclusively supervise young adults… so that these individuals may benefit from age-appropriate guidance, targeted interventions and a greater degree of individual attention.” Massachusetts’ probation officers working with young adults must receive specialized training on:
- Supervising and counseling young adults.
- Psycho-social and behavioral development of young adults.
- Cultural competency.
- Rehabilitation of young adults.
- Educational programs.
- Relevant community-based services and programs.
Another area of state involvement involves dedicated correctional options. Some states—including Colorado, Florida, South Carolina and Virginia—require certain youthful offenders to serve their sentences in facilities designed and programmed for young adults that are separate from facilities for older adults.
IV. Reentry Barriers
Most young adults who enter the justice system will return to the community, but at a significant disadvantage. The transition from adolescence to adulthood is described by researchers as a “critical development period.” According to Dr. Laurence Steinberg, it represents a stage of personal development in:
“mastery and competence, interpersonal relationships and social functioning, and self-definition and self-governance.”
Incarceration disrupts this critical development stage and exposes young adults to a negative environment. In addition, young adults return to the community often without finishing their education and lacking basic vocational and life skills, stable housing and supportive peer networks.
Criminal records can negatively affect a person’s ability to get a job, housing or a degree. One study showed that incarceration can diminish a person’ earnings up to 52%. States have worked to reduce these barriers by expanding expungement eligibility and simplifying the process, reducing barriers to occupational licenses, prohibiting criminal record checks at the time of employment or housing applications, and educating employers and landlords.
At least seven states have enacted expungement provisions that apply to offenses committed by young adults. In Vermont, the legislature recently made expungement mandatory for criminal history records of “qualifying crimes” committed by 18- to 21-year-olds. Wisconsin law allows the court to order at the time of sentencing the young adult’s record expunged upon successful completion of the sentence.
Coordination of Service Systems
State policies and funding have also promoted coordination of service systems important to reentry, such as education, health care, housing support and behavioral health care. In Oklahoma, the Department of Corrections and the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services implemented a reentry program that transitions inmates with serious mental illness to community-based mental health and substance-use services. Reentry intensive care coordination teams also provide support in the community related to housing, medical care and vocational opportunities.