As the criminal justice system finally begins to take into account the research showing that 18- to 25-year-olds are different from older adults, the field is slowly adjusting to how it treats them. And following science’s recognition of this distinct developmental stage, competing terms have surfaced to describe it.
Finding appropriate terminology to discuss this age group is important for guiding, shaping and driving these reform efforts. Words matter, as our language will play a role in shaping ongoing reforms. What are the options?
“Young adult” is undoubtedly the most common term used today. The term can be traced back to the early 1900s, when the first president of the American Psychological Association, G. Stanley Hall, defined the early twenties as a distinct developmental stage. In his book, “Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion and Education,” Hall defines modern adolescence as a “storm and stress period” when men and women are driven toward “intense states of mind and [are] passionately fond of excitement.” He defined “young adult” as ages 14 to 24.
“Young adult” is the default term used for the 18- to late-20s age range by the United Nations and U.S. governmental organizations. The American Counseling Association has used the term to recognize the “increased levels of stress and depression” specific to this age cohort.
But the term “young adult” does not indicate a cognitive distinction between a person undergoing adolescent brain development and an older adult with a fully developed prefrontal cortex. “Young” is static, vague and does not encapsulate the rapid growth during this developmental stage.
“Transition-age youth” is an alternative term used most frequently by child welfare agencies and government-run mental health services to connote the period when people “phase out” of public resources intended for youth and start to qualify for adult services. The word “transition” characterizes them by their relationship to the state welfare system, not their developmental stage.
“Late adolescent” is a term that has been gaining popularity recently, especially in litigation that challenges the application of the death penalty and life without parole for youth 18 years and above. In Roper v. Simmons (2005), a U.S. Supreme Court case which banned the death penalty for people convicted of crimes committed under age 18, the American Bar Association submitted an amicus curiae brief providing behavioral research on the development of “late adolescents.” In 2018, the ABA submitted another report opposing the capital punishment of “late adolescents” defining them as “individuals age 18 to 21 years old.”
The Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs also uses the term “late adolescents,” defining them as 18- to 24-year-olds who are in the “last phase of adolescent development … [and] experience increased emotional stability and independence.” However, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) limits “late adolescents” to the “the latter part of the teenage years, broadly between the ages of 15 and 19.” Applying the term “adolescent,” which is often used colloquially as a pejorative and associated exclusively to the “teen” years, ignores the increased responsibility and maturity that many achieve during those years.
We choose to use the term “emerging adult” for our Project at the Columbia University Justice Lab to emphasize that, while people aged 18 to 25 (or later) may be taking on some traditional adult responsibilities, the maturation process to independent adulthood takes years to complete. “Emerging” posits that their growth is not stagnant, but rather ongoing.
The term “emerging adult,” coined by a psychologist Jeffrey Arnett in 2000, reflects a more holistic approach toward the treatment of youth in the criminal legal system. Arnett defines “emerging adulthood” as the period between adolescence and young adulthood when youth do not identify as adolescents, but do not see themselves entirely as adults either.
Arnett emphasizes that in the past few decades, the road to adulthood has been extended: People often delay choosing a life partner, having kids or being financially independent from their parents until their late twenties. The extended transition to adulthood further necessitates the recognition that emerging adults are cognitively and socially different from fully mature adults above the age of 25. The Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics wrote in 2014 that “many individuals ages 18-24 are ‘emerging adults,’ who are not fully independent and have not completed the transition to adult roles in families, households, or the workforce.’”
The term “emerging adult” is gaining traction in the criminal legal system, notably by organizations and agencies that provide specialized services for this age group. For example, Connecticut provides Multisystemic Therapy for Emerging Adults (MST‐EA), an adaptation of standard MST, designed for 17- to 21-year-olds who pose the highest risk for negative long-term outcomes.
A more nuanced, non-punitive vocabulary demonstrates that people within the system are multifaceted, still developing, and are more than the crimes that they have committed. Embracing the term “emerging adult” in the criminal justice field opens up the opportunity for youth to be provided with the resources necessary for their transition into adulthood, desistance from crime, and most importantly, life as productive and healthy members of our society.
But while emerging adult justice seems to be the best term for describing and shaping the practice and policy innovations recently being considered in justice systems around the country, it may not be the most effective term to use in certain contexts. For example, a public policy advocate supporting legislation to raise the upper age range of juvenile jurisdiction from the 18th to the 21st birthday may find that using the term “late adolescents” is more persuasive to legislators and, potentially, voters as well. Also, people within this age group will have their own preferences on the terms used to describe them, and honoring those preferences will be critical to the success of this movement.
For now, consensus is building on the terminology at the same time that this new field is growing. We have chosen “emerging adult justice” as the most appropriate fit and will watch closely to see how it all shakes out and emerges.