Reforming Justice for Young Adults: Time to Rethink How We Serve this Critical Population

Event Recap

October 14, 2015
By Anamika Dwivedi, MPP Candidate

On October 14th the Honorable Judge Gloria Tan, an associate judge at the Massachusetts Juvenile Court, moderated a panel on reforming justice for young adults. Four panelists joined her: Molly Baldwin, the founder and CEO of Roca, Inc., an organization that works with young people to help them move out of violence and poverty; D’Quame Brown, a current Roca participant who is working full-time building companies’ websites with Resilient Coders; Adam Foss, the assistant district attorney for the Juvenile Division of the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office; and Vincent Schiraldi, a senior research fellow at the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management at Harvard Kennedy School.

Judge Tan framed the discussion with a central question, 'How can we rethink the way we serve justice-involved young adults?'

Panelist Schiraldi responded with lessons drawn from neurobiology and developmental psychology. Clinical research has shown that human brains become fully mature at stages much later than we previously thought. As a result, 18 to mid-20 year olds are less future oriented, more susceptible to peer pressure, more volatile emotionally, and greater risk takers than fully mature adults. Taking the developmental maturity of the young adult brain into account, Schiraldi asserted that the criminal justice system must re-envision the current system’s treatment of young adults. A policy recommendation that addresses the psychosocial similarities between young adults and children is an extension of the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 21, with additional, gradually diminishing protections for young adults up to age 24 or 25.

Panelist Baldwin also drew from developmental research to underscore the gap between a young adult’s intellectual ability and his/her psychosocial skills. In her presentation, she illustrated that while intellectual ability reaches a pinnacle at age 16, psychosocial development continues into early adulthood. Drawing a comparison between driving, alcohol consumption, and crime, she remarked that the age group at the gravest risk for driving deaths are 18 to 19 year olds; binge drinking hits its peak around 18 to 20 years old; and the ages with the highest amount of crime are 18 to 21 year olds. In the current criminal justice system, panelist Baldwin stated, 'we are expecting young adults to be at a place where they are not.' To address this maturity gap, her work at Roca focuses on providing a space for young men to practice both succeeding and failing. Roca’s developmentally appropriate approach has resulted in a recidivism rate of 65% for the participants and a 100% success rate in employment.

Building on panelist Baldwin’s description of Roca, panelist Brown reflected on his experiences with probation services in Massachusetts as they compared to his experiences with Roca. He asserted that going back into the system was an ineffective rehabilitative strategy, and the threat of incarceration did little to compel any sustainable life changes. In fact, for him, it did the opposite, teaching him more about negative behavior than what he already knew. However, by participating in Roca’s programming, he gained a support system of twenty to thirty people who told him that he was more than a statistic of the criminal justice system and who have supported him in building skills that would foster success. 

Panelist Foss provided another integral perspective from his vantage point as a prosecutor within the juvenile court system. Early in his career he observed an assembly line of youth who were appearing in court for probation violations. Often, the court system’s solution was incarceration, but this approach made it even more difficult for youth to do the right things upon reentry. To address the detrimental impact of incarceration on young people and public safety, Panelist Foss helped design diversionary programming to keep youth out of the court system and jails. Diversionary programming in Suffolk County Juvenile Court has provided individuals with the opportunity to take advantage of educational programming and job development, and has helped protect against the detrimental effects of incarceration.

Given that most people who ever have a felony record obtain that record before age 25 and that most people who commit a felony ‘age out’ of criminal behavior by age 25, the importance of developmentally appropriate young adult justice is heightened. If young people can reach age 25 without a criminal record and without prison experience, their likelihood of ever having such a record/experience drops significantly. The criminal justice system has an opportunity to tailor its approach to the distinct young adult population with positive interventions and developmentally appropriate programming that would reduce recidivism and increase public safety.

Additional Resources

In addition to a discussion, recent research from MassINC and the Executive Session on Community Corrections (2013-2016) was presented, including the inaugural report from a brand-new series 'New Thinking in Community Corrections' which focuses on the latest science and thinking, written by Executive Session members Vincent Schiraldi, Bruce Western, and Kendra Bradner.


This event was sponsored by the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management at Harvard Kennedy School, MassINC, the Criminal Justice Program of Study, Research, & Advocacy at Harvard Law School (HLS), and the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy (HKS).


  • The Honorable Gloria Tan (Moderator), Associate Justice, Middlesex Division, Massachusetts Juvenile Court
  • Molly Baldwin, Founder and CEO, Roca, Inc.
  • D'Quame Brown, Current Youth Participant, Roca, Inc.
  • Adam Foss, Assistant District Attorney, Juvenile Division, Suffolk County District Attorney's Office
  • Vincent Schiraldi, Senior Research Fellow, Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management, Harvard Kennedy School