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 population for reform, with the highest recidivism rate in the Commonwealth: in 2011, 76% of emerging adults released from Houses of Correction were brought back to court within 3 years. Young adults are over-represented 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 the probability of recidivism.

Raising the age to 18 worked. In 2013, Massachusetts raised the age of adult criminal jurisdiction from 17 to 18, and since then, juvenile crime has declined by 34%. The number of youth in juvenile facilities is also on the decline. A recent Justice Policy Institute report highlighted Massachusetts' success with raising the age through improving community-based responses and using cost-effective and developmentally appropriate approaches. Now, proposed reforms aim to build on that success.

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

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

Key partners in Emerging Adult Justice Reform: