During the past decade and a half, the number of young people confined or placed out of the home in the juvenile justice system has been cut in half. While there is still much more progress to be made — the country is still incarcerating far too many young people, particularly young people of color — what is happening in the juvenile justice system stands in stark contrast to the challenges seen in reducing adult imprisonment.
In an effort to kick-start change in adult criminal justice reform, some have been calling for a different approach to “young adults” — those 18- to 24-year-olds currently under custody of the adult justice system. Young adults make up roughly 1 in 5 people incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails. Half of them are people of color, and are victims of crime at twice the rate of others. It is clear that a better approach to young adults in the justice system is needed to create safer communities and see fewer people in prison and jail.
To better understand some of the opportunities and challenges to developing a better way of serving justice to system-involved young adults, the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) convened two roundtable discussions of experts from across the country, including corrections leaders, judges, public defenders, district attorneys, leaders of community-based organizations that serve young adults, researchers and people who identified as formerly incarcerated.
As we report in the JPI policy brief, “Improving Approaches to Serving Young Adults in the Justice System,” the suggested approaches to serving 18- to 24-year-olds closely matches the philosophical goals upon which the juvenile justice system was founded, and which the field has been working towards.
During the roundtables, we heard that the adult justice reform field should seize the opportunity to improve the approach to young adults. We heard that advancements in adolescent development research, legal arguments and emerging political opportunities should serve as a launch pad to advance changes in policy and practice that would result in safer, stronger communities and reduce adult prison and jail populations.
What we heard was that the approach to young adults needs to be community-based, collaborative and draw on the strengths of young people and their families. Nearly everyone we convened thought the best way to reduce young adults’ justice system involvement would involve community-based approaches that happen largely outside the formal justice system. The approach needs to be developmentally appropriate, individually tailored and reduce someone’s justice system involvement — all philosophical goals of the juvenile justice system. A better approach to young adults would also rely more on public health, restorative justice, procedural justice and trauma-informed approaches to resolve behavior.
We also heard that there needs to be changes to law, policy and practice in order to develop a more effective approach to young adults. Probation and parole practices need to change so they engage young adults effectively and partner with nonprofits. One policy change we heard identified the need to hire more young adult peer navigators whose job it is to help someone connect to services, and avoid deeper justice system involvement. In these discussions, we heard that law changes should eliminate barriers to changing policy and practice, like those that prevent adult justice systems from shortening someone’s length of stay in custody, or that prevent a government agency from hiring a formerly incarcerated person.
Like any new approach, we heard cautions to avoid pitfalls or unintended consequences that might come from a focus on young adults. The field needs to keep an eye on avoiding net-widening by over-relying on specialty courts, or approaches that push treatment on someone when they don’t need it. We need to make sure that older role models can remain involved in the lives of young adults as mentors. And we need to have a specific approach for addressing the needs of young adult women, who are a growing portion of prison and jail populations.
Fundamentally, we heard over and over that the response to addressing the behavior of a young adult shouldn’t happen in a police station, prison or jail, but should happen in neighborhoods, led by community-based, culturally competent organizations that seek to address their behavior in their home community.
Based on what JPI learned from the research process, there are some near-term recommendations that we’d offer to the field.
First, the recent federal investment in state and local government experimentation in their approaches to young adults should be continued by the next administration. This federal funding should be matched with technical assistance and research to help support and evaluate new approaches to serving young adults.
Moreover, policymakers should take a hard look at laws, policies and practices that need to be changed to help reduce young adults’ involvement in the justice system. At the end of the day there’s no question that we should and can do better in our approach to working with young adults in the justice system, and by doing so we will create safer communities and a fairer and more effective justice system at the same time.
Marc Schindler is the executive director of the Justice Policy Institute. He formerly served as general counsel, chief of staff and interim director for the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services in Washington, District of Columbia.