Our understanding of the development from adolescence to adulthood has grown exponentially in the last decade with advancements in the fields of neuroscience, developmental psychology and sociology. Notably, the finding that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that executes cognitive control, develops into the mid-20s has led to a more informed understanding of youth behavior.
With an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, emerging adults are more likely than fully mature adults to be impulsive, be influenced by peers, struggle with emotion regulation, and seek experiences with high risk or reward.
It is not completely surprising, therefore, that people aged 18 to 25 are more likely to engage in criminal behavior and are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated. Despite being slightly less than 10% of the U.S. population, 18- to 25-year-olds make up 25% of all arrests and 19% of adult prison admissions. This age group is also more likely to recidivate than older adults; a national study of 30 states found that youth under age 24 had higher rearrest rates than any other age group for all nine years that the report tracked after release from incarceration.
Stakeholders in the criminal legal system are starting to take this into consideration and create specialized services or pathways that respond to their unique developmental needs. Here are some of the notable concepts being tried around the country:
Specialized courts (e.g., San Francisco, California, Chicago, Illinois and Springfield, Massachusetts)
Specialized probation (e.g., Merrimack Valley, Massachusetts)
Specialized correctional units and facilities (e.g., Connecticut and Washington, D.C.)
Specialized parole provisions (e.g., California and Illinois)
Specialized resentencing provisions (e.g., Washington, D.C.)
Specialized diversion programs (e.g., Brooklyn and Dallas)
Special expungement laws (Massachusetts)
The most exciting systemic reform efforts to date have been efforts to increase the upper age of juvenile jurisdiction to include at least some emerging adults in the system specifically designed to serve youth. In 2018, Vermont became the first state to pass a law to raise the upper age of juvenile jurisdiction over the 18th birthday. A growing number of other states have since considered whether to follow Vermont’s lead, including Massachusetts, Illinois, Nebraska, California and Washington.
The field of emerging adult justice is new in the United States but the research that informs this field is well-established. Until jurisdictions provide developmentally appropriate services, programs and opportunities for these youth in the justice system, the responses will be neither effective nor fair.
The current arbitrary placement of adulthood at 18 particularly harms Black and Latinx emerging adults, who face arrest and imprisonment at much steeper rates than their white peers. For example, Black males ages 18-19 are 11.8 times more likely than their white peers to be incarcerated. As leaders at the local, state and federal levels all pledge a commitment to racial equity, they must examine emerging adult policies in their jurisdictions and ask: Would we be willing to consign this many high school seniors to the adult criminal legal system if the majority of young faces who came to our courtrooms were white?
We are calling for a new way of thinking about an age group that’s overrepresented in the criminal legal system. Changing old ideas and practices is never easy — no matter how much research demonstrates the need to do so. All stakeholders must work toward this change. We know that current practices fail emerging adults.
Philanthropists, researchers and state officials need to work together to innovate and disseminate better approaches. Politicians at the state and federal level need to have the courage to support reform. In particular, the Biden Administration can play a transformative role by increasing the age of adult prosecution for federal charges and by encouraging and supporting states in raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction too.
This is a practical plan, as juvenile justice systems already exist around the country and produce better results than their adult counterparts. The mechanism for reform is there. All we need is the will.