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February 24, 2023 Feature

Emerging Adult Justice: Using Science to Rehabilitate Vulnerable Offenders Before Their 25th Birthday

By Hon. Leanna Weissmann

Leroy Smith is a young Black man with a bushy beard and the type of infectious smile that promises to make good on his claim that he’s the “class clown.” Manager of a Starbucks just a few blocks from Wall Street in New York City, Leroy is also a clothing aficionado. He just formed an LLC to sell clothes, with the idea that the business may later include garments designed and sewn by one of his two younger brothers. He wants to marry and have kids—in that order. But in the meantime, he acts as a role model for kids in his community. He has the confidence of a man whose dreams are within reach.

By all accounts, however, Leroy should be a felon preparing for release from federal prison for his part in a get-rich-quick scheme cooked up by his childhood friends. Charged with multiple counts of fraud when he was just 24 years old, Leroy faced three years in a federal prison. All he could think about was how he had let down his family, especially his father, who relies on Leroy’s help for daily dialysis. Leroy then applied to and was accepted into the Young Adult Opportunity Program in the Southern District of New York (SDNY), which provides selected young adults (ages 18–25) with “structure and access to employment, counseling and treatment resources.” The SDNY program is one of about a dozen emerging adult courts that began springing up nationwide a few years ago.

Young adults account for 9.5 percent of the population but make up 23 percent of the arrests. The good news? This population, given the proper support, can generally mature out of criminalty by age 25. The concept of an “emerging adult” derives from the idea that an 18-year-old who relies on his parents for support does not become a full-fledged adult simply by reaching the age of majority. Think of a caterpillar, which must spend time as a pupa before it can morph into a butterfly. In much the same way, an emerging adult whose brain is still developing must transition from childhood to a productive and healthy adult. Emerging adult courts operate with an understanding that young people tend to learn and grow from their mistakes. These specialized courts, like the one Leroy attended, embrace the idea that proper intervention guides an emerging adult from the instability of youth to a lawful life of independence.

In Leroy’s case, he received services in lieu of jail time. Group therapy taught him to control his impulses, question inappropriate peer relationships, and make thoughtful choices. His court counselor offered educational options, job training, and critiques of his resume. Instead of leaving the system as a felon, Leroy got a second chance.

Emerging Adults Are Not Adults

Emerging adulthood is a time for new, sometimes overwhelming responsibilities, like signing a lease, starting a career, and becoming a parent. “You’re dealing with people who have one foot in adulthood and one foot in being a minor. They’re in between independence and dependence,” said psychiatrist and addiction specialist Dr. David Mee-Lee. And, perhaps in part because of these new responsibilities and the lack of maturity to handle them, emerging adults are overrepresented in the criminal justice system. Indeed, most people age out of crime by the age of 25. This period between dependence and independence has been dubbed by psychologists as the “maturity gap” because emerging adults cognitively understand the consequences of their behavior but lack the impulse control to act on that knowledge.

Though the criminal system has generally categorized all offenders over 18 years old as “adults,” such strict sorting no longer matches what neuroscientists know about brain development. “The thing is, they’re going to grow up regardless,” said Lael Chester, director of the Emerging Adult Justice Project at Columbia University’s Justice Lab, which spent the last four years studying alternatives to incarceration for emerging adults. “By twenty-five, they’re pretty much all going to get there. . . . The question is, how are they going to get there?”

Privileged kids often get to figure out who they are in college, where their mistakes—even legal ones—carry less weight. Less privileged kids, in contrast, are disproportionately forced to do this in prison, with a paper trail of formal court documents attesting that they are broken and dangerous. The impact from mistakes made in early adulthood can stalk a person for years, altering the entire trajectory of their lives. Emerging adult courts aim to change that narrative.

A Handful of Emerging Adult Courts Are Redefining Justice

Emerging adult courts are rare. Along with the SDNY program that helped Leroy, the federal system runs an emerging adult court in only one other jurisdiction, just three miles away in the Eastern District of New York (EDNY). Only seven states—California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, and Texas—operate their own emerging adult courts. And without exception, they are limited experiments, serving only one or two cities in any state.

The basic structures of these courts are the same. They employ dedicated staff, who generally undergo intensive training to gain a shared understanding of the cognitive science related to emerging adults. Their collective mission is to help young offenders gain independence instead of simply locking them up and hoping they learn their lesson. To that end, emerging adults, typically called “participants” rather than “defendants,” work with the courts to develop individualized treatment plans. Such plans often focus on access to therapy, addiction treatment, educational opportunities, job training, and housing. Courts then encourage participants to follow their respective treatment plans by providing short-term incentives tailored to each participant’s needs and interests. Examples include carpentry tools for a participant in an apprenticeship, children’s books for new parents, or work boots to celebrate a new job. Ideally, upon completing the courts’ mandates, participants leave with a clean record and the tools they need to avoid offending again.

Emerging Adult Courts Offer Limited, but Promising, Results Data

Early evidence suggests that emerging adult courts are an effective tool for addressing several problems with the criminal justice system. These include universal problems like limiting its ever-spiralling cost, reducing recidivism, and even finding a promising solution to address first instances of racial disparity in enforcement outcomes.

A Cost-Effective Path to Lowering Emerging Adult Recidivism

Although it would be premature to say that emerging adult courts reduce recidivism, the preliminary findings are encouraging. For example, Dallas participants are 74 percent less likely to be arrested for a new offense in the two years after beginning the program as compared to regular probationers. Seventy-three percent of San Francisco’s 130 graduates have avoided rearrest. None of the graduates from either the SDNY program or the North Lawndale restorative justice program in Chicago have reoffended.

The preliminary financial data also look promising. A recent report on the Dallas court prepared by the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute estimated a substantial cost savings of $6.86 for every dollar invested. The total 2021 budget for the North Lawndale program in Chicago was about $593,000 while the cost to imprison someone for one year in Illinois is $38,000. This means the program reaps financial net gains if they reach 15 offenders a year. Many more are participating, so proponents of the North Lawndale program believe these numbers provide such compelling potential cost savings to justify two more restorative justice youth courts in Chicago, one in Avondale and one in Englewood. As for the federal courts, Magistrate Sarah Netburn from the SDNY program commented, “It has to be saving money. Compared to sending someone to federal prison for eighteen months or longer, these [programs] are much less expensive.”

Low recidivism rates and cost savings are desirable, of course, but they are not all that matters. According to Jessica Kay Wachler, senior associate director of special projects at the Center for Court Innovation, important measures of success include improving access to education, employment, and mental health care. Moreover, avoiding a conviction has a particularly profound impact on future earnings potential. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, the average earnings loss due to criminal system involvement is 16 percent for people with a misdemeanor conviction; 21.7 percent for those who have had a felony conviction but did not go to prison; and 51.7 percent for people who have been imprisoned.

Emerging Adult Courts Can Help Address Racial Justice Issues

Emerging adult courts are well placed to mitigate the ruining effects the criminal justice system has on communities of color. Juvenile arrests and even school disciplinary actions can have devastating consequences for individuals. And the burden is not shared equally. Data show that Black kids are suspended, expelled, and arrested at school about three times the rate of white kids. And more troubing, 40 percent of committed juveniles are Black, more than double the percentage of Black juveniles in the U.S. population. Similar disparities exist for Hispanic and Native youth. Racial disparities are worst of all for emerging adults. Bureau of Justice Statistics data show that in 2019, “Black and Latinx 18- and 19-year-old males were 12.4 times and 3.2 times more likely to be imprisoned than their white peers, respectively.” Between ages 20 and 24, the numbers drop only slightly, to 8 and 3 times, respectively.

A recently released report from the Emerging Adult Justice Learning Community at Columbia University observed, “These disparities pose serious civil rights issues and create a ‘crisis of legitimacy’ in the criminal justice system. Racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system perpetuate other societal inequalities among vulnerable and minority communities, curtailing the ability to join the workforce, pursue higher education, participate in civic activities like voting, and secure housing.” People of color are criminalized from a young age, which has a lasting effect on their lives.

Emerging adult courts geared toward rehabilitation, rather than punishment, could put a dent in the mass incarceration that plagues Black communities. As of 2019, the United States incarcerated 5 to 10 times more people than other industrialized countries. Despite only 32 percent of the U.S. population being Black or Hispanic, 56 percent of the incarcerated population is: 34 percent of that prison population is Black, though Black people are only about 13.4 percent of the U.S. population. Emerging adult courts represent a second chance for young offenders, but they are also a second chance for the justice system. By focusing on racially informed therapeutic goals instead of carceral ones, these courts can work to undo the devastating impact our justice system has had on communities of color.

Emerging Adult Courts Offer Valuable Lessons on How to Reach Vulnerable Communities

Emerging adult courts did not appear overnight. Like any effort worth doing, emerging adult courts involved work from a variety of stakeholders who worked together to address challenges and obstacles. Stakeholders had to ask themselves questions like: What does my community need? What can I get funding to do? What is politically feasible? What services do I have to provide to meet my community’s needs? Answering these questions allows emerging adult courts not only to exist but to thrive.

Funding Obstacles Can Be Overcome

One of the biggest hurdles special courts face is finding a source of funding. Many courts rely on grant money. For instance, the San Francisco and Chicago courts both have received Federal Justice Assistance Grants. The Brooklyn court began from a Smart Prosecution grant procured by the District Attorney’s office and now also receives part of its funding through private foundations.

Other jurisdictions use resources already at their fingertips. The Omaha court started a post-plea program and uses services allocated to the probation department. EDNY operates in the pretrial and post-trial court divisions already functioning within the court system. As federal agencies, the federal courts are funded by Congress and restricted from applying for independent grant funding. Thus, EDNY relies on community organizations that serve New Yorkers free of cost.

Stakeholders Need to Act in Accord

The existing emerging adult courts began as visions by different stakeholders—i.e., a judge in Omaha; pretrial service officers in both EDNY and Albuquerque; and the district attorney’s office in Hampden County, Massachusetts. The Brooklyn court began as a collaboration between the District Attorney’s office and the Center for Court Innovation. No matter who spurs the initial action, a new court needs support from all corners, including the defense bar, the prosecutor, the probation office, the county’s funding source, service providers, and community members themselves.

Getting everyone on board can be tricky. The court in Orange County, California,—where, according to President Ronald Reagan, “the good Republicans go to die”—persuaded its conservative constituents to buy into its program by creating a post-plea court, satisfying community concerns that participants demonstrate responsibility for their illegal acts. Meg Reiss, a Brooklyn district attorney, noted that everyone really has the same end goals. “The common denominator for everyone is enhancing public safety and having a fair system. If these are our goals, how do we achieve those goals in the best way possible? We do that by doing what allows people to be restored to the community in the best possible way.”

Programs Must Learn How to Best Engage with Their Target

For emerging adult courts, one of the primary focuses is to figure out how to effectively engage with emerging adults. To do this, courts need to understand one of the defining characteristics of emerging adults: how they learn and what incentives they respond to. Courts seek to structure their programs around principles found in the neuroscience of brain development. Many courts train their entire staff in basic cognitive brain development so everyone can tailor their work to the specific needs of emerging adults. Grace Icenogle, a postdoctoral scholar with UC Irvine monitoring the Orange County program, said, “Young adults respond better to the carrot than the stick.” This can be a difficult mandate to follow when our entire justice system is built on looking at the negative.

But emerging adult courts are trying. For instance, many courts give participants a “skip day” privilege, allowing defendants to miss one of their court meetings. The EDNY court softens its curfew requirement as participants meet goals. Gifts are also common. Orange County court participants receive words of encouragement, gift cards for cell phone data, and even work clothes or boots if needed for a new job. The Brooklyn court gives participants metro cards, food, and gifts for life-affirming events such as birthdays and weddings. In Albuquerque, participants receive gifts like Thanksgiving dinners, gas vouchers, and food, sometimes delivered to their homes. EDNY participants sometimes are entered into drawings for special prizes like movie tickets. And in Springfield, a $10,000 bequest allowed the court to purchase dress clothes for participants to wear to job interviews and gift cards to reward positive behavior. And in a personal touch, Judge Cindy Leos of the Albuquerque court also believes in the power of a caring gesture. She makes a point to praise her participants at every opportunity.

But sometimes the most powerful incentive comes from the emerging adult’s peers. In the EDNY court, participants are learning about budgeting and credit for the first time. “There is a major competition with the participants on whose [FICO] credit is the highest now,” said Adossa-Ali. The Omaha court’s participants attend group meetings and hold each other accountable. “It’s very impactful for them to have another 19-year-old say, ‘Hey, what are you doing? It’s not that difficult,’” Judge Shelly Stratman explained. Not only does the program give participants access to people who know exactly what they are going through, but it also encourages them to succeed.

Programs Must Know What Makes Their Target Audience Unique

Because emerging adult courts have limited spots, careful consideration must be given to selecting the participants with the greatest need for the program. Stakeholders insist courts should screen cases very carefully to determine whether they are appropriate for alternatives to incarceration. Academics recommend designing courts to avoid “net widening,” which is “the idea that the presence of well-resourced courts may attract referrals of young people who otherwise would have been diverted or simply never charged.” They also caution against admitting participants who would thrive with or without the court. Instead, courts should target young people most in need of the services they offer. Courts are often criticized for “cherry picking” participants, but many express a preference for harder cases.

Participant Input Is Critical

One easily overlooked component to the creation of successful emerging adult courts is direct input from emerging adults. Young people were crucial to the inception of Chicago’s courts. The founding judge was inspired to create the court after local high schoolers questioned her about police violence and showed that peace circles—now the cornerstone of the North Lawndale court—can work. “Including young people in designing the things that are going to have bearing on their lives is incredibly important,” said Karen Lindell, senior attorney for the Juvenile Law Center. In most emerging adult courts, the young adults are essential to developing their own action plan. But Lindell encourages jurisdictions exploring emerging adult courts to think bigger by bringing emerging adults to the table at the policy level.

Not only should emerging adults give input to the creation of the court, but those who graduate from the program should have an opportunity to help others. Academics and practitioners alike highlight the importance of mentorship to a participant’s success. The movement from needing help to becoming a mentor is a critical aspect of emerging adulthood. “We often talk about how important it is for young people to have mentors. But what we forget is that the research is really, really clear that people desist from crime—they grow up—when they can mentor, when they take on adult responsibilities,” said Chester. The Chicago and Albuquerque courts offer mentorship opportunities to graduates. Albuquerque believes these opportunities prevent participants from self-sabotaging at the end of their program.


The models presented by the existing emerging adult courts seem to be working, at least anecdotally. Every graduate is a success story.

Judge Maria Hernandez from the Orange County court fondly remembers a participant who robbed a massage parlor with a friend. Getting him to graduation took hard work. Raised in the foster care system with inconsistent caregivers who often let him down, the young man had trouble trusting that the court really wanted to help him. When he finally made it to graduation, he bought a new suit for the occasion. He now works in a doctor’s office.

A particularly vocal Dallas court participant complimented Judge Brandon Birmingham’s tie early on in his time with the court. As a graduation gift, the judge gave him the tie, which the graduate later wore to a successful job interview. He now dreams of a college degree and a job on the police force.

In Springfield, the judge is proud of the progress made by a young man whose entire family was well known within the criminal system. He began the program downtrodden and withdrawn. Since joining the court, he has obtained his driver’s license, become a team leader at work, and is on track to become the first in his family to graduate high school. Judge Walsh bragged, “[h]e’s doing everything he can to be a role model to his son.” His demeanor has also transformed. He is now engaged and known to crack a smile.

Judge Stratman of the Omaha court is particularly proud of a young high school dropout who came into court drug addicted and with no family support. By the end of the program, the participant had earned his GED and enrolled in college on his employer’s dime. He even ran a marathon. “It still just gives me chills thinking how far he came,” said Judge Stratman.

As for Leroy, the SDNY program worked so well that he now gives motivational talks to middle schoolers and acts as a role model for other participants in the program. “The judges saw so much potential, and I just had to tap into that potential,” Leroy said. When entering the program, Leroy knew there were no guarantees that he would avoid federal prison. He got the happy news that his charges had been dismissed while he was attending a Christian convention in Indiana.

“I was just jumping up, and I couldn’t stop smiling. I just wanted to get a fresh start. If I go to jail and I have a felony, my life is changed forever. I wasn’t trying to do that.”

The author wishes to thank Casey Farrington for her assistance with this article.

    The material in all ABA publications is copyrighted and may be reprinted by permission only. Request reprint permission here.

    By Hon. Leanna Weissmann

    Hon. Leanna Weissmann is a judge for the Indiana Court of Appeals.