Report Proposes a Different Model of Criminal Justice for Young Adults

September 8, 2015
By Doug Gavel

Prison is becoming home for a increasing number of young adults, most of whom find themselves caught in a revolving door that leads them back behind bars multiple times. Nearly 130,000 young Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 were admitted to state or federal prison in 2012. Another 97,500 were released back into their communities, but roughly 78 percent of them will be rearrested within three years. 

The apparent inability of the U.S. justice system to effectively deal with young offenders is the focus of a thoughtful new report, “Community-Based Responses to Justice-Involved Young Adults,” published as a result of the Executive Session on Community Corrections at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) under the auspices of HKS’s Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management (PCJ) and the National Institute of Justice (NIJ).

“This paper raises important questions about the criminal justice system’s response to young adults,” writes Karol V. Mason, assistant attorney general, Office of Justice Programs at the U.S. Department of Justice. “Recent advances in behavior and neuroscience research confirm that brain development continues well into a person’s 20s, meaning that young adults have more psychosocial similarities to children than to older adults. This developmental distinction should help inform the justice system’s response to criminal behavior among this age group.”

The report authors argue that young people “are even more likely to engage in risk-seeking behavior than juveniles,” making them more inclined to commit crimes and become involved in a justice system which isn’t sensitive to their developmental challenges.

In response, the authors propose “a different kind of criminal justice for young men and women.”  Their primary recommendation is to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction “to at least 21 years old with additional, gradually diminishing protections for young adults up to age 24 or 25.” In their model, “incarceration is used sparingly, and community organizations are enlisted as partners to promote the social integration of criminally involved young men and women.”

“Such a system recognizes the diminished capacity for responsible decision-making in youth while harnessing the opportunities presented by their ability to grow, adapt and change,” the authors argue. “Additionally, such a system would recognize the diminished opportunities and greater demands that now face young adults, particularly in the disadvantaged communities that supply the adult correctional system.”

The report is co-authored by Vincent Schiraldi, senior advisor to the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice in New York City; Bruce Western, faculty chair of the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management at Harvard Kennedy School; and Kendra Bradner, project coordinator of the Executive Session on Community Corrections at HKS. 

inmate resting his arms on prison cell door

The report authors argue that young people “are even more likely to engage in risk-seeking behavior than juveniles,” making them more inclined to commit crimes and become involved in a justice system which isn’t sensitive to their developmental challenges.

 

 

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