A Focus on Young Adults Will Help Create Safer Communities and Reduce the Use of Incarceration

We are a nation founded on laws and justice, where we believe everyone deserves a second chance.
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In the weeks after the election, America has been swept up in news about administration appointments, platforms, and potential policies. But as administrations change and different parties come into power, we all hope that certain American values remain steadfast. We are a nation founded on laws and justice, where we believe everyone deserves a second chance.

Having represented youth in Baltimore's juvenile court, and later running Washington, D.C.'s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, I've had an up-close view of how justice and second chances are valued and strived for in our juvenile justice system. When living up to its ideals, youth are treated differently than adults in the criminal justice system. The most effective juvenile justice systems include individually tailored approaches, where youth are placed in the least restrictive environment consistent with public safety, where their needs can be met through rehabilitation and treatment, with most youth being worked with in the community rather than in a secure setting. And where we understand the value of not having their delinquency record follow a young person for the rest of their lives, ensuring that poor decisions made during someone's early years doesn't make it harder for them to get an education, find a job, and ultimately transition into being a successful law abiding adult.

With research showing that young adults 18-24 are closer developmentally to teenagers than older adults, it's time to apply the best lessons of what we know works in our juvenile justice system to young adults in America's criminal justice system.

Young adults, between the ages of 18-24, are roughly 1 in 5 people incarcerated in America's prison and jails -- about half of whom are young people of color. With young adults also disproportionately involved in violent crime, both as perpetrators and as victims, making progress with this group is crucially important for reducing violent crime and creating fewer victims.

The Justice Policy Institute's newest report, Improving Approaches to Serving Young Adults in the Justice System, is based on input from a number of different advocates, policy-makers, practitioners, funders, and directly impacted individuals, sharing their perspectives on what a more effective approach to young adult justice could look like. Overall, we heard that a better approach to serving young adults will focus on the community, enhance public safety, improve the lives of justice involved people, and could be a catalyst for reducing the incarceration of hundreds of thousands 18-24 year olds.

JPI's report comes on the heels of advancements in research and new information on brain science. We now know that the brain doesn't finish fully developing until the mid-20's, meaning young adults are developmentally similar to adolescents. Compared with people who are older, young adults are more likely to make spontaneous decisions, give into peer pressure, and act on emotions.

With this new information in mind, justice systems are rethinking ways to improve their approach to young adults. The people JPI convened said that the justice reform field should seize current opportunities created by research developments on brain science to advance policy change. JPI heard that approaches to young adults should be community-based, collaborative, and draw on the strengths of young people. What we heard was, the focus of our efforts should be on empowering individuals, and making communities stronger and safer.

There are some things that policymakers can do -- right now -- to begin the process of developing better approaches to young adults. JPI recommends that the recent federal investment in advancing improved approaches to serving young adults at the state and local level be continued by the next administration. This federal funding should be matched with federally supported technical assistance and research to help support and evaluate new approaches to serving young adults. States and localities should also thoroughly investigate their own laws, policies, and practices and how they serve young adults in the justice system.

Through these steps, we can begin to decrease the over 400,000 young adults in our prisons and jails. We can shift our approach to one towards proper investments, while saving taxpayers significant money. By rethinking our approach towards young adults, we can come closer to living up to our core American values of being a nation of second chances and justice for all.

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