Getting Young Adults Back on Track

By Emily Morgan and Katy Albis

People between the ages of 18 and 24—often referred to as young adults—are generally considered to be undergoing a period of transition. According to a 2015 CSG Justice Center brief, Reducing Recidivism and Improving Other Outcomes for Young Adults in the Juvenile and Adult Criminal Justice Systems, research shows that young adults have tendencies that are distinct from those of both youth and older adults: Although young adults are more cognitively developed than youth, compared to older adults, they are more impulsive, less emotionally mature and less cognizant of the consequences of their actions. Many young adults also lack engagement in school and work, face mental health and substance use issues, are disconnected from family and other caring adults, and experience homelessness—all factors that put them at risk of justice system involvement.

In 2012, young adults accounted for 10 percent of the U.S. population but nearly 30 percent of people arrested and 21 percent of all admissions to adult state and federal prisons. In that same year, 18- to 20-year-olds accounted for approximately 20 percent of people incarcerated in the juvenile justice system; of those, 40 percent were black. Data also show that young adults have higher recidivism rates than other age groups. In response, states are exploring various policy and practice approaches to address the distinct needs of young adults.

Raising the Age 

Adjudication within the juvenile justice system leaves young adults with a juvenile record—which does pose challenges for youth but is often confidential, and typically can be sealed or expunged, depending on the state—rather than a criminal record, which comes with related consequences including barriers to employment and housing. Advocates and policymakers in many states are working to keep more young adults in the juvenile justice system by “raising the age”—setting a higher maximum age for juvenile court jurisdiction. As of 2015, the upper age of juvenile court jurisdiction was 18 in 41 states, but that number continues to grow. In 2016, Louisiana and South Carolina passed legislation to raise the age from 17 to 18, and Michigan and New York are considering similar legislation this year. 

During the 2016 legislative session, lawmakers in Connecticut, Illinois and Vermont proposed legislation to raise the age for juvenile court jurisdiction even further to age 21. Although these bills ultimately did not pass, they signal momentum for identifying ways to deal with young adults more effectively. 

Other lawmakers have expressed concerns that raising the age beyond 18 would strain juvenile justice systems in cost and capacity, beyond a general sentiment that 18- to 21-year-olds are legally adults who should know right from wrong and be held accountable for their behavior. 

Youthful Offender Status

Rather than raising the age of jurisdiction to treat all young adults as juveniles, some states have passed laws that recognize 18- to 21-year-olds as a special category of “youthful offenders.” These laws allow young adult cases to be considered in juvenile or family court instead of adult criminal court, typically by recommendation of the court or prosecutor, depending on the state. Several states—including Colorado, Florida, Michigan and Vermont—have such laws. 

Some lawmakers argue that placing individuals in juvenile facilities instead of adult prisons when they are young may help keep them out of prison throughout their lives.

“Extending the age of eligibility for youthful offender status to 21 will improve young people’s chances for success later in life by keeping them in the juvenile justice system, with the exception of those who commit the most serious offenses,” said Vermont state Sen. Richard Sears.

Separate Facilities and Caseloads

Some jurisdictions also have established specialized facilities, courts and probation caseloads for this population. Maine and Pennsylvania, for example, have separate young adult correctional facilities that focus on rehabilitation and vocational and job training. San Francisco has specialized courts and probation caseloads for young adults, and a new law in Vermont stipulates that incarcerated people under 25 are to be held separately from the older adult prison population.

Targeted Programming 

While few interventions have been proven to reduce recidivism and improve other outcomes for young adults, some service providers are testing targeted services to meet the needs of this group. A program in Connecticut uses a version of Multisystemic Therapy for Emerging Adults, or MST-EA, which is designed to address the most prevalent causes of offending in 17- to 21-year-olds who have a serious mental health condition, or SMHC. One pre- and post-intervention analysis of MST-EA participants revealed significant reductions in participants’ mental health symptoms, justice system involvement and associations with antisocial peers.

“We know young adults with SMHC (serious mental health condition) who are involved in the justice system are some of the highest-risk and highest-need people to serve,” said Dr. Ashli J. Sheidow, a researcher for the MST-EA program. “And while we are still refining the MST-EA model, initial findings suggest that MST-EA significantly reduces participants’ mental health symptoms, justice system involvement and association with antisocial peers.” 

Cognitive immaturity does increase young adults’ risk of involvement with the justice system, but it also makes them more behaviorally adaptable than older adults. These specialized justice system approaches seek to capitalize on young adults’ capacity for change, address their unique life circumstances, and intervene in a way that supports young people not only to avoid future involvement in the justice system, but to succeed in adulthood as well.