Changing the Life Trajectory of Justice-Involved Young Adults in San Francisco

By Katherine Weinstein Miller, Chief of Alternative Programs and Initiatives, Office of San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón

In San Francisco a confluence of research advances, events, and ideas has driven us to fundamentally rethink our approach to our young adults—including young adults involved in our justice system.

The recognition of young adults as a unique population is not new. In 2003 Michael Wald and Tia Martinez’s groundbreaking paper on 'disconnected youth' exposed the prevalence of young adults who were disengaged from the critical supports and opportunities needed to make a successful transition to adulthood. City agencies and community organizations in San Francisco began working to fill gaps in systems and services for young adults—often by simply extending eligibility for youth programs or creating specialized slots in adult programs. In 2005 then-District Attorney Kamala Harris launched 'Back on Track,' which set the standard for specialized justice system programs for young adult defendants by providing opportunities to begin adulthood educated and employed—and without a derailing felony conviction. 

Over the last decade significant research findings have transformed our recognition of how we need to work with young adults. Advances in neuroscience have begun to inform new program models – from the justice system to mental health to housing – that are aligned with young adult brain development. Simultaneously, our understanding of the impact of trauma and toxic stress on brains, bodies, and life trajectories has stimulated city agencies and nonprofit organizations to infuse “trauma-informed” approaches into our service models. For young adults the effects of trauma at their developmental stage are unique and extreme – a toxic combination far greater than the sum of its parts.

While much remains to be done, some examples of our collective work in San Francisco are highlighted below:

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Transitional Age Youth Unit

Launched in 2009 our Adult Probation Department maintains a special unit for 18- to 25-year-old probationers call the Transitional Age Youth (TAY) Unit. With staff trained in young adult development and trauma-informed approaches, the TAY Unit:

  • Works with clients to develop individualized treatment and rehabilitation plans (ITRP) based on the risks, needs, and emotional development of each client
  • Regularly reviews and adjusts plans
  • Connects clients with developmentally appropriate programs and resources across the city

The TAY Unit also conducts evidence-based programming specifically geared toward the cognitive-behavioral challenges for young adults. The unit has demonstrated remarkable results, including a 73 percent completion rate.

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Alternative Sentencing Planner Program

Created in 2012 by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, the Alternative Sentencing Planner (ASP) model is comprised of a social worker with expertise in evidence-based programs to address criminogenic needs, and with detailed knowledge of programs and services available in San Francisco.

Prosecutors refer cases to the ASP, who conducts an in-depth case review to determine if alternatives to incarceration are appropriate for the defendant, and provides a written report with detailed recommendations—sentencing designed to transform, not punish. The prosecutor decides whether to incorporate the ASP recommendations into his/her final disposition. Preliminary independent program evaluation found that the ASP simultaneously reduces recidivism and reliance on incarceration. The program is overwhelmingly used by prosecutors for cases involving young adult defendants, and the San Francisco District Attorney’s office currently is expanding this program to add an ASP dedicated for 18- to 25-year-olds.

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Young Adult Court

Beginning in August 2015 San Francisco launched our Young Adult Court (YAC), a collaborative court for young adults aged 18-25 facing a wide range of offenses, including violent and nonviolent felonies.

The YAC team—which includes the court, prosecutor, defense, probation, other city agencies and community-based organizations—has worked collectively to develop a unique program model that is both developmentally- and trauma-informed. Each YAC participant is assigned to a specially-trained clinician, who collaborates with the entire YAC team to engage, motivate, and support the participant to stabilize his/her transformation into adulthood and reduce recidivism.

Still in its pilot period with a capacity of 70 cases, the YAC Program has been overwhelmed by sheer demand. YAC leverages specialized young adult resources including Adult Probation’s Transitional Age Youth (TAY) Unit, the district attorney’s Alternative Sentencing Planner Program (ASP), the Public Health’s TAY Division, and the sheriff’s in-custody TAY services. An independent researcher is currently evaluating the Program.

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Dedicated Funding for Young Adult Services

In 1991 San Francisco voters authorized the Children’s Fund, landmark legislation that set aside local tax dollars specifically to benefit children. By 2011 the Children’s Fund generated over $50 million annually and funded a vast array of nonprofits, school programs, and other services. In 2014 San Francisco voters overwhelmingly reauthorized the Children’s Fund, doubling annual funding through 2041—and extending the fund to include young adults between the ages of 18 to 24.

Now known as the Children and Youth Fund, this investment has become critical to the justice system’s ability to align the programs described above with services designed to meet the unique needs and developmental stage of young adults in San Francisco.

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Creating a New Paradigm

The young adults in our justice system face an overwhelming triad of challenges:

  • The intense turbulence of their developmental stage
  • Complex trauma
  • Disconnection from positive supports and opportunities

Justice system partners strive to balance public safety with our reluctance to remove young adults from their families and communities. We know that if we get it right with a young adult, we can change his or her life trajectory—a significant return on investment for the young person, their family and community, and the fabric of our society. We know that impulsivity and poor decision making are developmentally normal for this age group - but those attributes also lead to high-risk behaviors, which can make it hard for us to 'take a chance' on a young offender.

The combination of developmentally-aligned and trauma-informed approaches offers tremendous opportunity to transform the justice system’s response to young adults. As San Francisco’s programs continue to show results, we are hopeful they will offer a new paradigm for other jurisdictions.

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About the Author

Katherine Weinstein Miller is the chief of Alternative Programs and Initiatives with the Office of San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, and oversees the office's collaborative courts, neighborhood courts, mental health and juvenile units, as well as initiatives focused on parallel justice, restorative justice, and young adult offenders.

Ms. Miller has been at the District Attorney’s office for eight years, previously serving as assistant district attorney for reentry and truancy, managing attorney, and director of policy. She holds a JD from Yale Law School and a BA from the University of Pennsylvania... more about Katy Miller

Contact Information


Wald, M. & Martinez, T. (2003) Connected by 25: Improving the Life Chances of the Country’s Most Vulnerable 14-24 Year Olds. William and Flora Hewlett Foundation Working Paper,

Rivers, J. & Anderson, L. (2009) Back on Track: A Problem-Solving Reentry Court. BJA Fact Sheet,

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About this Series

In this series Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management (PCJ) experts were joined by other juvenile justice and young adult justice (YAJ) advocates, experts, policymakers, and practitioners to:

  • Share innovative approaches and information about challenges that justice-involved young adults present
  • Highlight significant opportunities that exist for reform
  • Provide an opportunity to connect people with research, policy, and programs across the United States and abroad

We encourage you to continue the conversation about #YoungAdultJustice on social media

The opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management, the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy, Harvard Kennedy School, or Harvard University.

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