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Rethinking Our Approach to Young Adults

Friday, January 13, 2017
By Assistant Attorney General Karol V. Mason

Panel discussion on justice-involved young adults

Neuroscience. Psychosocial maturity. Adolescent development. Life-course Criminology. What do these scientific concepts have to do with advancing public safety? When you're talking about young adults, everything.

At the Department of Justice, we anchor our efforts to advance public safety in data and research. And when we look at the data, we see that young adults – those who are 18 to 24 years old – are more likely than those younger and older than them to be arrested, more likely to be arrested for an act of violence and more likely to recidivate when they leave a correctional facility. Young adults are also more likely to be victims of violent crime than any other population

We also know, from robust research on adolescent development and the Pathways to Desistance longitudinal research study, that young people naturally age out of crime – few kids who are involved in delinquent behavior actually continue into adult criminal behavior.

So, if we are serious about reducing future criminal activity, we need to focus on justice-involved young adults and rely on the known data and research. The data on recidivism rates for this population tells us that simply doing more of what we've traditionally done – the trail »em, nail »em and jail »em approach – does little to advance long term public safety. However, research on neuroscience and psychosocial maturity gives us a glimpse into a better, more effective way.

Groundbreaking studies show that the brain continues to develop well into a person's 20s. During young adulthood, the part of the brain that controls pleasure-seeking has largely developed, while the part of the brain that governs impulse control and decision making is still under development. This combination means that young adults are overly motivated by reward seeking behavior.

As a result, they are more susceptible to peer pressure, more prone to risk-taking and impulsive behavior and more-likely to misread social cues and drastically overreact. All of those things can lead to criminal activity.

And yet, the part of the brain that is responsible for cognitive ability has largely developed by age 16. In fact, that might be what is most frustrating about working with teenagers and young adults. They know right from wrong. They can have a rational discussion with you about it. But when they find themselves in an emotionally charged situation, especially around their peers, they can't always keep their actions in line with what they know. This is called the psycho-social maturity gap.

It's like having a car without brakes … it looks like a fully functioning car, it sounds like a fully functioning car, but it just doesn't have the ability – even if it wants to – to stop at that red light up ahead.

There is, however, a flip side to this developmental research – one that offers great promise for advancing public safety. The development that occurs during young adulthood not only helps to explain young people's penchant for poor decisions, it also makes them more malleable to appropriate interventions that promote growth. In other words, we have an incredible opportunity in front of us to intervene, counsel and positively impact a young person's future behavior, and in doing so, prevent him or her from committing crimes in the future.

Indeed, there is broad recognition that children and adults are different, and they should be treated as such when they make mistakes. In their decisions over the past decade, the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed those differences – most notably in Roper v. Simmons, which eliminated the death penalty for juveniles. And, if we are to truly rely on the developmental research, then it is time for public policy to acknowledge that the legal marker of age 18 between childhood and adulthood is one that is largely based on past cultural norms, not scientific research.

To alert the public to these new findings, in September 2015 OJP hosted a panel discussion with leading experts about developmentally-appropriate responses to justice-involved young adults. Participants discussed a report from the National Institute of Justice and the Harvard Kennedy School, New Thinking in Community Corrections: Community-Based Responses to Justice-Involved Young Adults, and heard from Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and other administration officials. Three hundred people packed the Great Hall at the Department of Justice, and another 5,000 people tuned in via livestream.

Subsequently, OJP's National Institute of Justice published a thorough review of programs and legislation across the country affecting justice-involved young adults that uncovered more than 50 programs, practices and policies specifically impacting young adults nationwide. In December 2016, NIJ convened top researchers and practitioners from around the country to share knowledge and identify research gaps.

During this time, OJP's Bureau of Justice Assistance was awarding nearly $7 million to state, local and tribal jurisdictions that proposed developmentally-informed approaches to working with young adults who are arrested, on probation or returning to their communities from incarceration. OJP's Office for Victims of Crime awarded almost $14 million to support male survivors of violence, particularly boys and young men of color and their families. And the Department of Labor awarded more than $30 million in Reentry Demonstration Projects for Young Adults.

I am proud and gratified that we at OJP have made such monumental progress in applying science to practice in these last few years. Incorporating developmentally-informed responses to justice-involved young adults is good for the youth, good for the community and one of the best ways to advance public health and safety for all.

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