By: Frances Prizzia | Juvenile Crimes

In the last two decades, research has revealed a great deal of new information about the development of the adolescent brain. One of the most interesting discoveries is that this development continues well into what we have previously considered adulthood, generally until around the age of 25.

This creates a conundrum that we have only begun to address in the criminal justice system where, ordinarily, people are treated as adults from the age of 18, and often earlier. With science now telling us that this is a demographic uniquely positioned to change and rehabilitate, what do we do with that?

One emerging answer is collaborative courts specifically aimed at young adults. The first of these courts was established in 2007 in San Francisco by then District Attorney George Gascon (a true progressive prosecutor who is now running for the same job in Los Angeles). Orange County now has its own Young Adult Court, run by Judge Maria Hernandez, the court is a joint endeavor with Professor Elizabeth Cauffman who studies Psychological Science at UCI.

Many of the crimes committed by young people can be directly traced to a lack of psychological maturity, measured by impulsivity, risk perception, thrill-seeking, and resistance to peer influence. This is one explanation for something criminologists have long known, that young people make up a grossly disproportionate percentage of those who commit crimes and that a person’s likelihood of engaging in criminal activity goes down sharply as a person ages. The idea of Young Adult Court, then, is to replace incarceration with individualized programming designed to address deficiencies in psychological maturity and help its participants understand how to make better choices in order to prevent future recidivism.

With Professor Cauffman involved, the court is a live action study of the effectiveness of such an approach with the hope that the results will lead both to the expansion and improvement of these kinds of programs here and across the country.

Participation in Young Adult Court is voluntary and, while much is expected of the participants, successful “graduation” from the court generally results in the dismissal of criminal charges or reduction of felony charges to misdemeanors. Participants also receive significant ancillary services such as help with housing, employment, education, and health care.

If you or someone you know who is between the ages of 18 and 25 has been charged with a crime in Orange County, contact my office today to discuss whether Young Adult Court might be a good option.

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