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Programs and Legislation Targeting Justice-Involved Young Adults

Date Published
July 20, 2016

Young adults aged 18-24 account for a disproportionately high percentage of arrests and prison admissions. About half of previously incarcerated young adults return to prison within three years following release. Although in most U.S. states the legal transition between adolescence and adulthood takes place at age 18 (and less frequently at age 16 or 17), it is debatable whether young people have full control over their behavior by age 18 and whether their brain maturation is complete at that age.[1]

Having a justice system that appropriately responds to criminal behavior and helps young adults rebuild their lives has the potential to reduce future criminal activity — and consequently the number of future victims.

The first step in addressing how we deal with young adults in the criminal justice system is knowing what is out there — and following up with open communication and collaboration.

To help jump-start and inform the conversation, NIJ conducted an environmental scan to explore programs and legislation that address the developmental needs of young adults involved in the criminal justice system. The scan identified 51 programs and 8 pieces of legislation.

We plan to further foster the conversation by:

  • Periodically updating the list of programs and legislation.
  • Convening an expert roundtable to discuss research gaps and future research projects.
  • Creating a research agenda that is responsive to the needs of stakeholders.

NIJ hosted a webinar for key stakeholders in September 2016. Watch "Environmental Scan of Criminal Justice Responses to Justice-Involved Young Adult".

Overview of Programs

The results of the environmental scan highlight the fact that formalized programs serving justice-involved young adults are diverse, jurisdiction-specific, and often rely on local expertise and initiative.

Programs are categorized based on the lead organization within the justice system: young adult courts, probation/parole, district attorney offices, community partnerships, prison-based and advocacy and research programs.

Some common approaches and strategies to address the needs of young adults were identified. For example, most programs used case management and provided intensive services for substance abuse and mental health problems, educational needs, vocational training and stable housing.

The scan also revealed gaps in services. For example, no programs addressed the specific needs of Native American young adults or justice-involved young women. 

Find the full list of programs in Appendix 1: Programs and Legislation.

Overview of Legislation

There were limited examples of enacted legislation. Those identified focused on raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction, increased discretion in sentencing and expungement of records for justice-involved young adults.

Find the full list of legislation in Appendix 1: Programs and Legislation.

How the Scan Was Conducted

The scan incorporated a variety of methods to locate programs and legislation, including:

  • Review of research and documents prepared by advocacy organizations.
  • Internet searches.
  • Stakeholder interviews.
  • Outreach to professional organizations.
  • Searches on social media sites.
  • Distribution (via professional electronic mailing lists) of an invitation from the Assistant Attorney General to submit information on successful programs.

About this Article

The work described in the article was supported by NIJ contract 2016-207.
This article is based on the report Environmental Scan of Developmentally Appropriate Criminal Justice Responses to Justice-Involved Young Adults (pdf, 87 pages).

Date Published: July 20, 2016