By Sarah Barr
States that want to improve the lives of young adults in the justice system face a tough task because of limited evidence about how to do so.
But, states still should begin piecing together a strategy to reduce recidivism and improve other outcomes for young adults using a few broad approaches, says a new report from the Justice Center at the Council of State Governments.
Young adults need help curbing their criminal behavior while pursuing education, employment and treatment for mental health problems and substance abuse, so they can transition into adulthood, the report says.
Specifically, the report recommends states tailor supervision and services to young adults; examine barriers to a comprehensive safety net of education, employment and health services; improve data collection and reporting on young adults; and support implementing and evaluating new programs.
The report comes as researchers and policymakers are increasingly aware of the brain science that says young adults — roughly those ages 18 to 24 — are still developing. And they also know that young adults drive a disproportionately large share of crime, said Emily Morgan, co-author of the report and a senior policy analyst at the center.
“It’s really catching their attention that this is a window of opportunity,” she said.
One key to improving the lives of young adults will be to try out new ideas, Morgan said. Researchers might know what works for a 17-year-old but need to see how it should be tailored to a 21-year-old. Or, a policymaker could borrow an idea from experiences with young adults in foster care.
“What we really need are innovative solutions and to test out those promising models,” she said.
The report outlines how young adults are different from both youth and adults: They’re more cognitively developed than youth but still more impulsive than adults. They’re more likely to engage in risky behavior than youth and less able to control their emotions than adults.
“It is unrealistic to expect justice systems to develop interventions designed specifically for every age group. However, what is clear from the research is that any effective policy response to reducing young adult reoffending must account for these basic developmental differences,” the report said.