04.27.17

At the Intersection of Brain Development & the Criminal Justice System: Young Adult Courts

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This post was written by Laura Malavé-Seda and Rebecca Reingold.

Image Courtesy of the Center for Court Innovation


In the summer of 2015, San Francisco established the U.S.’s first Young Adult Court (YAC), which strives to align opportunities for accountability and transformation with the unique needs and developmental stage of eligible young adults, ages 18-25. It acknowledges the fact that “[o]ur traditional justice system is not designed to address cases involving these individuals, who are qualitatively different in development, skills, and needs from both children and older adults”.

A growing body of research suggests that from a brain development perspective, it is difficult to clearly define a line between childhood and adulthood. The prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is responsible for cognitive processing and impulse control, can continue to develop until the early 20s or later. Unfortunately, the criminal justice system has been slow to recognize the fact that brain development is a long, complicated process without obvious milestones. The age of 18, at which point children become adults in the eyes of the law, “doesn’t have any biological magic to it”, according to Dr. Leah H. Somerville, a Harvard neuroscientist.
While states like Illinois and Connecticut are considering legislation to move that line (by trying anyone under age 21 as a juvenile), San Francisco’s YAC takes a different approach, placing young adults into a separate category that is neither juvenile nor fully adult. This approach takes into account not only that young adults aged 18-25 are fundamentally different from both juveniles and older adults in how they process information and make decisions, but also that many are going through this critical developmental phase without supportive family, housing, education, employment, etc.
In practice, eligible 18-25-year-olds with felony charges agree to go to court regularly for a check-in with a judge and case manager, during which participants evaluate their own progress and the judge assesses their risk of getting back into trouble. Court administrators help coordinate employment, housing and education support. Participants typically spend 12-18 months in the program, depending on their progress and original criminal charges. If they finish the program without reoffending, their charges are either dropped or reduced, which was the case for 45% of the participants in the court’s first cohort.
San Francisco is not alone in adopting alternatives to incarceration for young adult offenders. Brooklyn launched a Young Adult Court in 2016 and Chicago is expected to open a Restorative Justice Community Court in 2017. As cities and states consider whether and how to reform the criminal justice system so that it is more compatible with recent brain development research, they should consider establishing young adult courts, particularly as more information becomes available about their ability to reduce participants’ risk of reoffending. It seems these courts have enormous potential to not only benefit their participants but also save the government money and enhance collaboration across its various agencies that work with young adults.

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The views reflected in this blog are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.

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