Fostering Accountability Among Young Adults: Restorative Justice as a Developmentally Targeted Intervention

By Danielle Sered, Director, Common Justice

Young adults are capable of causing both relatively trivial and very serious harm. They are also, as we continue to learn, uncommonly capable of change. Our challenge, then, is to identify strategies that increase the likelihood of positive transformation. Much of the recent research on adolescent development, particularly from developmental psychology and brain science, has led to calls for mercy for young adults who cause harm.

However, I believe that this research calls not only for mercy, but serious, functional, and dignified accountability.

Restorative Approaches to Accountability

Understanding that adolescents’ brains are not yet fully developed is essential, but we do not have to regard that fact passively. Rather, we can create interventions that are responsive to young adults’ current capacity and that nurture their ongoing development while holding them accountable for their behavior. For example, one of the most essential functions young adults are still developing is that of consequential thinking. Because young adults are in the process of developing this ability, what consequences are imposed for their actions and how will determine the efficacy of interventions in the short term and will have a lasting impact on the adults they become. Consequences for adolescents need to be immediate, causal, proportionate, consistent, contextualized in community, and respectful.

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Consequences for adolescents should follow as closely as possible on the heels of an action. For instance, a long, drawn-out court process that extends over months or even years reduces the likelihood that a young person will experience the consequence as linked to their action. This temporal disconnect not only reduces the impact of an intervention in the short term, it also further diminishes any future deterrent effect the punishment stands to have. Processes that are nimble and rapidly responsive to acts of harm are therefore more aligned with young adults’ capacity and so more likely to produce positive results.

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Part of how young adults develop consequential thinking is by observing patterns, and because that ability is in development, their minds are uncommonly attuned to seeking out those patterns so as to support their development. If A always causes B and X always causes Y, young adults can begin to understand causality and can begin to make decisions informed by consequences. That said, if in their experience, the link between their own unlawful behavior and incarceration appears arbitrary, it is immensely difficult for them to develop consequential thinking about unlawful behavior. Their personal experience of arbitrariness may be echoed in their neighborhoods: they may see someone who is known to have killed people walking free and someone else incarcerated for possessing a small amount of drugs.

At the same time, they may see what appears to be a causal link between a person’s race and their treatment by law enforcement. In a social context in which race appears to be a better predictor of a person’s fate than that same person’s actions, young adults are likely to develop a sense of consequential thinking that reflects their observed reality—one where they are powerless to change the factor that drives outcomes (their race) and where the factors in their hands (their actions) are comparably irrelevant. (In that sense, racial bias is not only inconsistent with, but also damaging to, adolescent development.)

A process that holds the causality of one’s actions at its center, as restorative justice does, can thus be transformative for a young adult. In restorative circles and conferences, facilitators ask a series of questions that link actions and impact: What happened? How did that impact you? What should the responsible person have to do as a result? The process is completely, methodically, intensely causal. As such, it is deeply resonant with and supportive of young adults’ capacity for consequential thinking.

In contrast, court processes can be particularly difficult for young adults to experience as meaningful. In court, everyone is present—judges, attorneys for both sides, even your parents—except the person you hurt. Yet young people are supposed to understand that the consequences they are facing are for hurting a particular person. It is difficult for them to experience a consequence imposed in the victim’s absence as being fundamentally about what was done to that victim, particularly since there is virtually nothing in the court that reflects the centrality of the victim to the outcome. Restorative justice, on the other hand, holds the victim central to the process in a way that makes his or her harm unequivocally clear to the person who caused it. It is hard to find a young adult who is moved by broken rules, but nearly all young adults are moved by people who are hurting. Processes that centralize people—rather than rules—are therefore better positioned to encourage a young person’s accountability and reckoning.

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Young people often experience severe consequences for small infractions and no or minor consequences for serious infractions—or they experience the same consequence for vastly different actions (i.e., incarceration or school suspension of equal lengths for a petty theft and a serious assault). As adults, consequential thinking does not just mean we never take risks—or even that we never do things that are wrong. It means we have a sense of the seriousness of our actions that is linked to a proportionately serious outcome. We take many risks that come with small potential consequences (jay walking, littering, relying on a train to be on time, buying a lottery ticket) and fewer risks that come with large potential consequences (driving drunk, starting fights, embezzling, gambling large sums of money). Healthy, mature consequential thinking is deeply related not just to the fact of risk, but to the scale of it, and for young adults to mature into that ability, they must be met with consequences that are proportionate. 

Restorative justice is a profoundly proportionate process. Its consequences are not just about law, but also about ethics — that is, not just about what is allowed or disallowed, but what is right or wrong. A young person in a restorative process, for instance, might face a more significant consequence for stealing $20 from someone for whom that money was a significant loss rather than from someone for whom it was not. That is not arbitrary—quite the contrary. It is deeply meaningful, and rooted in the reality of human connection and the effects of a person’s choices. Facing the fact that our choices have consequences for others is a fundamental building block of both consequential thinking and empathy that can be transformational for a young person.

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When a consequence is consistently applied, it means the same action brings the same consequence—for everyone, every time. That means a young adult who does the same thing on two different days will be met with the same response from everyone who has the power to impose consequences, and that the responses to their actions are the same as the responses to others who make the same choices. It is extraordinary how rare it is that all those standards are upheld, and extraordinary that young adults manage to develop consequential thinking even in the absence of such standards.

Young adults have an allergy to hypocrisy—and they should. Their brains need patterns to develop—they rely on them to grow into adults, so they react strongly when those patterns are not available. The consistency of a response, therefore, becomes a hallmark of good parenting, good schooling, a healthy community, and good young adult justice policy. Restorative justice is by no means the only process that can deliver such consistency, but when practiced well, it does exactly that.

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Contextualized in Community

Healthy young adults are intensely peer-oriented. While their reactivity to peer pressure puts them at risk of making terrible choices, it is also a sign of healthy development. As people emerge into adulthood, we have to identify new anchors, in addition to our parents or primary caregivers, to center our moral compasses. This makes sense: we start off young, and we rely on our parents or primary caregivers to tell us what is right and wrong. At some stage, though, we have to be able to make those discernments without our parents telling us what to do. So, we supplement the guidance they have given us with the guidance of our society—we pay attention to and internalize social norms, and we align our behavior to those norms. In so doing, we become part of our society and reflect its values in our actions. 

It is a strange thing—at the precise time when a young person is internalizing their environment to shape them into an adult—to send that person to jail. We send young people who are uniquely, intensely responsive to the actions of those around them to a place where every single one of their peers has broken the law, where every single peer whose behavior they can witness and internalize is incarcerated, and where the social context whose norms they are solidifying into their adult personality is a restricted environment characterized by isolation, violence, and shame. Young people in jail will do what young people anywhere do—they will develop a moral compass calibrated to their environment. We should not be even the slightest bit surprised by the recidivism rates of 70 to 80 percent that characterize far too many juvenile detention centers.

On the other hand, young adults’ hyper-responsiveness to their peers and social context make them unusually responsive to interventions that bring to bear the moral weight of their community on their actions. Restorative justice processes include support networks—family, friends, loved ones with a stake in the outcome—that bring the young person into a moral community through accountability and respect.

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No one likes to be disrespected, but young adults, who are coming into a sense of their own power and autonomy, are particularly reactive to it. But respecting young adults does not mean excusing their behavior—quite the contrary. It means raising our expectations of them and holding them unequivocally accountable for their actions. Excusing behavior is belittling, and young adults are not responsive to being belittled. Holding them accountable, on the other hand, conveys a respect for their agency, their power, their ability to affect others, their capacity to make choices, and their membership in and importance to the community.

That said, accountability isn’t the same as punishment. Being punished is passive. Taking accountability is active. It requires a young person to acknowledge that they have hurt someone, to recognize the effect of that harm, to attempt to make things as right as possible, and to take actions to never cause that same harm again. It is compatible with both dignity and healing, even as it increases the demands placed on the person responsible for harm.

Accountability is demanding, difficult, and unsurpassed, I believe, as a rite of passage into adulthood. We should do young adults the service of holding them accountable. Science and experiences tell us that, in return for that service, we will get what we all seek—adults who contribute to building the safe, strong communities we all deserve.

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Standard Adversarial Approaches vs Restorative Approaches to Accountability

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About the Author

Danielle Sered envisioned, launched, and directs Common Justice. She leads the project’s efforts, locally rooted in Brooklyn but national in scope, to develop and advance practical and groundbreaking solutions to violence that advance racial equity, meet the needs of those harmed, and do not rely on incarceration. 

Before planning the launch of Common Justice, Danielle served as the deputy director of Vera’s Adolescent Reentry Initiative, a program for young men returning from incarceration on Rikers Island. A Stoneleigh fellow, Danielle received her BA from Emory University and her master's degrees from New York University and Oxford University (UK), where she studied as a Rhodes Scholar. Prior to joining Vera, she worked at the Center for Court Innovation's Harlem Community Justice Center, where she led its programs for court-involved and recently incarcerated youth. 

Contact Information

Web Common Justice or Vera Institute of Justice

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

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.

Danielle Sered headshot.