Building a developmentally appropriate justice system

It’s time for innovation in addressing needs of young adults

YOUNG PEOPLE between the ages of 18 and 24 fill up America’s prisons and return behind bars faster than anyone else. This troubling reality is not taken lightly in Massachusetts, one of the first states to implement policy innovations for this age group. The Commonwealth’s promising steps are well grounded in science regarding young adult brain development – and this science suggests that even bolder approaches should be taken.

A report from the Harvard Kennedy School issued last fall offered compelling evidence that a focus on this population is warranted. Studies in psychology and neurobiology from the past decade revealed that young adults are a distinct group. Although they are intellectually mature, their impulse regulation is still developing. They tend to take more risks, pay less attention to the consequences of their actions, and are more susceptible to peer pressure. Combined with the fact that starting a family, finishing school, and holding a steady job – all bridges to maturing out of delinquent behavior – are now happening later in life, our youth are at higher risk for engaging in crime. Without age-responsive policies and programs across all parts of the justice system, more of these young people are likely to reoffend and hinder public safety.

Society has recognized and responded to these realities in other areas of law and practice outside of criminal justice.  Young people can’t legally consume alcohol, buy a handgun in a gun store, or, increasingly, purchase tobacco until they’re age 21. You need to be 25 years old to serve in Congress and can stay on your parents’ health insurance under the Affordable Care Act until age 26.  Even businesses have caught on – it is very difficult to rent a car until age 25 and auto insurance for those under 25 is prohibitively expensive.

Massachusetts is starting to recognize the need for innovation around justice-involved youth. Through the Juvenile Justice Pay For Success project, the state and private funders partnered with the nonprofit organization Roca, to deliver Roca’s data-driven intervention model to hundreds of high-risk young men. The Commonwealth’s Safe and Successful Youth Initiative also serves justice-involved young adults, in partnership between nonprofits and local police departments across 12 urban communities. To fully address the needs of young adults in the justice system, more can be done.

A new report released by Roca explores what a developmentally-appropriate justice system could look like. The report explores 10 promising initiatives across the country and beyond that specifically target justice-involved 18-24 year olds. Specialized courts focused on the developmental needs of young adults have been established in California, Nebraska, and Texas. These courts offer intensive supervision programs instead of incarceration, which help young people who committed crimes to gain education, employment, and life skills that will keep them out of harm’s way. Such programs often allow young people who redirected their lives to have their records sealed or expunged, and to get a second chance.

Young adult policies cover multiple aspects of the justice system. Some European countries allow judges or prosecutors to decide whether adult or juvenile law should apply in a young person’s case, based on the offender’s maturity level. In Maine and Pennsylvania, separate young adult correctional facilities were established, and New York and San Francisco have started specialized young adult caseloads in their probation departments. Policymakers in Connecticut and Illinois have recently proposed raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 21, something unprecedented in the history of the US Juvenile Court.

The options are abundant, but the direction is clear. It is time for policy innovation, which will build on the Commonwealth’s experience in tackling hard problems in a courageous way. Responsible and effective policies must take into account offenders’ age and maturity level, and pay special attention to the early years of adulthood. Raising the age of the juvenile court, starting young adult courts, and establishing special programs for this age group should all be considered. A safe path for young people out of the justice system is a safe path towards a healthy and thriving society.

Molly Baldwin is founder and CEO of Roca Inc. Vincent Schiraldi is a senior research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program in Criminal Justice and former commissioner of probation in New York City.

Meet the Author
Meet the Author

Vincent Schiraldi

Senior research fellow, Harvard Kennedy School Program in Criminal Justice