Emerging Adult Justice Reform

Improving community safety. Advancing POsitive outcomes for young adults.

Massachusetts currently spends the most money on young adults in the justice system but gets the worst outcomes: emerging adults make up 10% of the state population, but represent more than 29% of arrests, 23% of Houses of Correction commitments and 20% of Department of Correction commitments. The Council on State Governments identified justice involved emerging adults as a key priority for reform, with the highest recidivism rate in the Commonwealth: in 2011, 76% of emerging adults released from Houses of Correction in 2011 were reconvicted within 3 years. Young adults are overrepresented in our criminal justice system, and young adults of color are most disproportionally impacted.

The young adult brain is still developing, making them highly amenable to rehabilitation. This development is highly influenced – positively or negatively – by their environment. Massachusetts already recognized emerging adults as a distinct population: our child welfare, healthcare, education, labor and other agencies have all created dedicated policies and programs to support young adults' transition to independent adulthood. Developmentally, young adults are more prone to risk-taking and heavily influenced by their environments. Research also finds that for those engaging in criminal behavior, the vast majority "age out" of offending by their mid-twenties, particularly with developmentally appropriate interventions. Overly punitive approaches with young adults have been shown to extend involvement in the criminal justice system and slow desistance from crime. Exposure to toxic environments, like adult jails and prisons, entrenches young adults in problematic behaviors, increasing probability of recidivism.

The proposed reforms build on Massachusetts' success raising the age of adult criminal jurisdiction from 17 to 18 in 2013. Since then juvenile crime has declined by 34%, and the number of youth in juvenile facilities has continued to decline. A recent Justice Policy Institute report highlighted Massachusetts' success with incorporating 17-year olds into the juvenile system through improving community-based responses and efficiently managing resources using cost-effective and developmentally appropriate approaches.

Support for Massachusetts' campaign to raise the age to 21 been highlighted in local media, most notably in Sheriff Steven Tompkins and recently retired Sheriff Frank Cousins' op-ed, as well as drawn national attention from The New York Times Editorial Board.

The following reports call for re-envisioning how our justice system responds to young adults using this developmental lens: 

Key partners in Emerging Adult Justice Reform: