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Children in the courts: meeting the needs of emerging adults in the justice system

October 19, 2022

By Teri Deal, Ana Cienfuegos-Silvera, and Lindsey Wylie

Teri Deal, Ana Cienfuegos-Silvera, and Lindsey Wylie write in their 2022 Trends in State Courts article Meeting the needs of emerging adults in the justice system, that emerging adults, also referred to as young adults and defined as those aged 18 to 24, should be provided with differential treatment within the justice system which considers their developmental needs and unique social challenges. While some state approaches have extended the juvenile court jurisdiction or juvenile probation supervision period into young adulthood, some scholars have instead argued that a developmentally informed approach would recognize emerging adults as different from both juveniles and adults over 25. This would warrant a separate justice system or justice system response.

Because the adolescent brain does not immediately transform into a fully mature brain at 18, setting the boundaries of juvenile jurisdiction at this age is somewhat arbitrary and not supported by developmental science. Similarly, criminological research on the age-crime curve also supports the need for specialized justice responses for emerging adulthood. Studies demonstrate that offending rates increase during adolescence, peak around age 19 to 20 and decrease thereafter. Moreover, this age group is overrepresented at every stage of the criminal justice system, including prison and jail.

The courts cannot meet the needs of emerging adults alone. Court judicial leaders can use their power to convene community stakeholders, build a shared understanding of the unique needs of emerging adults, and work together to strengthen the infrastructure of communities to effectively address those needs.

Individuals aged 18 to 24 straddle an imaginary line between youth and adulthood. Their brain is still developing problem-solving, prioritization, and emotional regulation skills. Most emerging adults are amenable to change, but they need trusted advisors who see their value and support them as they continue to develop. Continuing to treat emerging adults in our justice system in the traditional ways comes at a cost to communities, governments, and families. Investing in developmentally aligned, trauma-informed, and community-centric interventions, however, can have a positive impact on young adults for a lifetime, addressing the underlying factors that led to the criminal behavior, cultivating positive connections to their community, and reducing the likelihood of continued court involvement.

Check out the full article and others in the 2022 Trends. Share your experiences with emerging adults with us. For more information, contact the authors, or call 800-616-6164. Follow the National Center for State Courts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Vimeo.