Youth Justice Takes Two Steps Forward in New York City

By Avni Majithia-Sejpal, Senior Writer, Center for Court Innovation

Adolescent and young adult defendants—many of whom are youth of color confronting histories of trauma, poverty, substance abuse, and disability—pose a unique challenge to the justice system. In New York City, justice system leaders have launched two separate initiatives in Brooklyn and Manhattan to respond to the specific needs of young adults.

An expansion of current adolescent diversion projects for 16- and 17-year-olds, these programs are rethinking the conventional response to young adult offenders by maximizing the use of alternatives to incarceration and reducing criminal convictions. Together, they precipitate a shift in the city’s approach to youth justice.

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A Comprehensive Approach for Brooklyn

In Brooklyn approximately 30,000 adolescents and young adults are charged criminally each year. Since 2012 the Adolescent Diversion Program has handled over 1,200 cases with 16- and 17-year-old defendants. A partnership between the New York State Unified Court System, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, defender agencies, and the Center for Court Innovation, the program attempts to reduce incarceration and criminal conviction by connecting young people to developmentally-appropriate community-based interventions and services.

An evaluation of the adolescent diversion program has shown promising results, including a modest reduction in violent felony re-arrest. Building on this approach, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, in partnership with the Center for Court Innovation, received a Smart Prosecution grant from the United States Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance to create a comprehensive approach for 18- to 24-year-olds in Brooklyn. In May 2016 they launched the Brooklyn Young Adult Court, which offers diversion opportunities and alternatives to incarceration to young adults charged with misdemeanors. Bringing the principles of community court to the Brooklyn Criminal Court, it allows young adults to reduce their justice-system involvement and avoid the negative effects of criminal convictions and incarceration. Prior to the launch, court stakeholders participated in a specialized training on effective interventions for justice-involved young adults.

Research shows that individuals at higher risk of re-offending necessitate more intensive interventions, while those at lower risk should be mandated to minimal interventions. As Amanda Roaf, a social worker at the Center for Court Innovation explains, “because young adulthood is a critical stage of development, when we target services to moderate or high risk defendants during this stage, we see strong outcomes.” As such, the young adult court deliberately focuses on higher-risk defendants and those facing serious criminal consequences with the goal of effecting the greatest impact on case outcomes.

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A New Young Adult Court for Manhattan

In Manhattan the Midtown Community Court is launching a similar initiative in partnership with the New York County District Attorney’s Office. The Manhattan Young Adult Court will handle misdemeanor defendants between the ages of 18 and 20 arrested in Manhattan by applying an adolescent diversion model to a young adult population. Making use of risk-needs assessment tools and evidence-based practices, the initiative features a range of age-appropriate interventions, including individual and group counseling, substance abuse treatment, mental health and trauma services, and educational and vocational services. The Court will be presided over by the Midtown Community Court judge and will operate once a week.

According to Dipal Shah, project director of the Midtown Community Court, “focusing on young adults is key to successfully accomplishing criminal justice reform — of any age group, this group has the highest rates of re-arrest and return to prison with a new sentence.” 

John, a nineteen-year-old participant at the Midtown Community Court, serves as an example of the approach. A resident of the Bronx, John had recently dropped out of high school and was unemployed. He had been arrested numerous times for jumping the subway turnstile and not paying the fare. John faced the prospect of a permanent criminal record and presented with deep social service needs. Due to abuse and family dysfunction in the home, he was frequently kicked out or left home. The Midtown staff were able to quickly assess the needs underlying John’s repeated offending and worked with him and his family to place him in a community-based program that specialized in both education and vocational skill building. The judge and court staff recognized the developmental challenges and life circumstances John faced, and created realistic expectations for compliance and success. Instead of being convicted of a crime and sentenced to jail, John received the services and accountability he needed to guide him through a difficult time of transition to adulthood.

These initiatives in Manhattan and Brooklyn hope to serve as a crucial test of the idea that diversion programming for young adults can help maintain accountability and public safety, while simultaneously reducing incarceration and its consequences. In a moment of intense focus on the need to reduce incarceration at Rikers Island and address concerns about young people and the justice system, the young adult courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan will be closely-watched initiatives with potentially far-reaching consequences for reducing crime, reducing incarceration, and building trust between the public and the justice system.

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About the Author

Avni Majithia-Sejpal is a senior writer at the Center for Court Innovation, where she writes and edits articles, web content, papers, and books, as well as produces podcasts and videos exploring questions that relate to race, domestic violence, mental illness, and procedural justice.

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¹In New York State, all 16- and 17-year-old defendants are charged in adult criminal court.

²Reich, W., et al. (2014). “The Criminal Justice Response to 16- and 17-Year Old Defendants in New York”

³Lowencamp, C.T. and Latessa, E.J. (2004). “Understanding the Risk Principle: How and Why Correctional Interventions Can Harm Low-Risk Offenders.” Topics in Community Corrections. Washington, DC: National Institute of Corrections.

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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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