By Nancy Campbell

Most parents have found themselves at some point frustrated when their teenage child came to them at 10:00 o’clock at night asking for help for the project he or she was just now beginning and was due the next morning. Or there is that moment when you ask your teenager to do something and five minutes later they forgot what you asked them. Or the time when you marvel that anyone, let alone the child you have so wisely counseled, could do something so incredibly, well, dumb. And these behaviors do not magically stop at 18 years of age.

Likely it was similar observations that led leaders in the 1800s to believe we needed a separate juvenile justice system. No one knew exactly why but clearly folks understood that young people are different from adults. Similarly I recall the wiser of the criminologists I studied with in the 1970s reminding us of the “maturation effect.” While we had a lot of theories on what causes crime, one thing seemed clear and that is aging plays a large role in what we now label desistance.

“Back in the day” there were youthful offender prisons. The thinking was to not mix young offenders who had shorter criminal histories with older, more seasoned offenders. And now of course, we have research that helps us understand that indeed adolescents are different from adults, that this period of adolescence is longer than we once thought and indeed keeping lower risk offenders separated from higher risk offenders helps to reduce recidivism.

Our parental experience and common sense has proved to be supported by current research. But then as we know, when has evidence ever gotten in the way of public policy? Sadly the tough on crime craze of the 1980s that raged for 30 years has left many in the public (not to mention policy makers) believing young people in the criminal justice system should be treated just like adults. But ever the optimist, I do believe there is more interest in what evidence says today and especially if it helps save taxpayers money. In the state I live in, every state dollar spent on corrections programs is measured for its potential to reduce recidivism. In other words, if you want the state to fund a corrections program there had better be ample evidence that the program, when delivered with fidelity, reduces recidivism.

Thanks to scientific advances, we now understand that certain brain functions, such as executive thinking, are not fully developed until the mid-20s. That means these offenders who by law may be adults are in many ways more like teenagers than adults. I am speaking here of the 18-25 year old offenders. And just like our experience with our own children, we recognize that young adults often act more like adolescents than adults. Armed with this knowledge criminal justice practitioners have a golden opportunity to positively impact the development of this population and in so doing, increase public safety.

I have had an incredible opportunity to work on an exciting project for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to develop the design principles for how to work with 18-25 year old inmates while incarcerated and through reentry to the community. I led a team of experts from around the country to design the The California Leadership Academy (CLA). The CLA has a goal of reducing recidivism among 18-25 year old male offenders. While some recommendations are specific to the CDCR, the program design principles and model elements can be modified for any system in the country.

The model differs from traditional correctional approaches by supporting the development of new skills and behaviors that these young men have not had the opportunity to develop. By the purposeful and consistent application of behavioral and learning principles, the program addresses the distinct developmental needs of this age group.

The report addresses the physical plant design that supports the various program elements. A three-phase model that progressively increases freedom and responsibility is designed for successful reentry to society. The comprehensive treatment model addresses criminogenic and other treatment needs as well as the best designs for education, vocation and recreational skill development. Appendices that discuss the various program elements and design principles provide detail model information.

And while this model focuses on post conviction incarceration, many of the same principles apply to programs for young adults pre-conviction. We need more research and evidenced informed programs to be implemented and evaluated that are specifically designed to address the developmental stage of this age group. Having design principles rooted in what we know about how to address the criminogenic and other treatment and social needs of 18-25 year old offenders, it is time to study different approaches to reducing recidivism with this population.

We need to grab hold of the opportunity to help young adult offenders while their brains are still not fully developed. We need to build our research base so we fully understand how to help young adults in conflict with the law address any criminogenic and other social needs so they can move into adulthood with hope and opportunity. We need to provide the support and resources for them to explore and develop their many strengths and gifts.

We have a choice. We can push young adult offenders further into criminality by treating them like mature adults or recognize they are still in late adolescence and help them transition into productive, healthy adults. The CLA provides some ideas for us to experiment with and to explore to achieve this goal. We hope you will find it useful as you develop programs for this population.

We want to hear what you are doing to help change the criminal system to better serve these young adults. Let us know in the comments below!

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