Inspired by the same brain research that preceded the nationwide movement to reform our juvenile justice system, the term “emerging adults” has gained currency as the term denoting ages 18 to 25. This age interval is the final stage in the continuum of brain development that creates mature adults — those with aspirations, plans and possibilities and who are engaged in society.
It is not a period of transition but its own unique developmental stage. Emerging adults are important to the justice system as a whole because their crimes create a springboard into a vast prison system whose failures, scandals and costs have finally been recognized by government at all levels.
Does this sound familiar? Those of you who have worked for juvenile justice reform know a great deal about the work necessary to create science, imagine alternatives, pilot effective practices, educate the government and collaborate for change. What can you teach and what can we learn?
I recently attended a workshop at Loyola University Law School that examined issues for law, practice and policy where I learned much of what I am about to describe. Like juvenile reform, science can initiate a real world discussion. We know that 20 to 40 percent of youth have contact with the criminal justice system before adulthood and that 33 percent of those who are arrested are also arrested as adults. Youth crime peaks between ages 15 and 19 and then declines sharply in the early 20s.
National data show that more severe crimes including major violence, robbery and weapons offenses peak during the years of the emerging adults’ age range. (Note that the data on weapons is very broad and includes possession without use.) There is a small population of adults who are first arrested after age 25 but very little is known about them.
There are large gaps in both data and research, including differentiation by race, ethnicity and gender. Similarly, age-specific evidence-based responses to emerging adult offenders needs much work. On the other hand, there is current support for some of the same approaches used for youth: cognitive behavioral therapy, family interventions, drug and alcohol treatment and mental health services.
Juvenile practices for screening and assessment for trauma, mental health issues and substance abuse have proven their worth in discovering problems and directing case planning. Risk assessment for supervision and incarceration strategies can be productive for emerging adults but more research is needed as to particular risks, needs and protective factors in this age group.
I also recently had the educational pleasure of hearing a presentation by David M. Kennedy, director of the John Jay College Center for Crime Prevention and Control. His long career in criminology is evident in the rigor of his research and his unvarnished recommendations for policy reform. He describes this group as rationally fearful of prison and extremely amenable to change, echoing the scientific opinion of Lawrence Steinberg, the well- known adolescent brain development researcher.
Professor Kennedy describes a group of mostly male individuals who have a long record with multiple arrests and who simply do not understand their prison trajectory. One intervention technique is to call the offender to a meeting that includes law enforcement, parole or probation and family members. The individual hears an explanation of his official record, its effect on a sentencing hearing and the likely range of prison term for his violation of a current order or for a new case that the prosecutor has in hand. The power of fear of prison and the destruction it brings to hopes of a job, education, mate-seeking and housing are sometimes effective at deterrence. Family support and community follow-up are arranged.
I drew a comparison to evidence-based practices like multi-systemic therapy and restorative justice practices as frank and collaborative interventions.
Professor Kennedy also noted that length of sentence has little effect on crime deterrence and that shorter — much shorter — prison terms are just as effective and at much less cost to taxpayers. Researchers from around the world have found that by age 25 to 27, criminal conduct steeply declines for almost everyone. Unfortunately, this is also the age at which prison sentences peak, meaning that prison stays often begin at the same time risk is drastically reduced.
We must remember that effective juvenile justice practices will reduce crime and therefore, the population eligible for prison. For the adult justice community, we should heed the lessons learned by the juvenile system and seek better data, research, assessment tools and evidence-based practices specific to the 18 to 25 age group. For governments, we must recognize that reducing prison populations and reinvesting in services is sound policy.
The principles for both systems are identical: Positive outcomes for offenders — youth or emerging adults — creates public safety and saves us billions.
Judge George W. Timberlake, Ret., is chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, and an alternate member of Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice. He was a trial court judge for 23 years before retiring as chief judge of Illinois’ 2nd Circuit. He is a member of the Illinois Models for Change Coordinating Council, the Illinois Juvenile Justice Leadership Council, the Redeploy Illinois Oversight Board and the board of the state Juvenile Justice Initiative.