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Time To Rethink How Young Adults Are Punished, Experts Say


In this country, criminal justice experts are asking another basic question about who belongs in prison. The question comes amid widespread reconsideration of why so many Americans are behind bars. And the latest focus is on young people - adults over 18, but not by much. People under 18 are treated differently, of course, and have been at least since 1899 when the first juvenile court opened because it's believed that teenagers can grow out of their bad behavior. Now experts argue that young adults should be seen the same way. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: This week 300 people gathered at the Justice Department here in Washington to get a bit of a science lesson.


ELIZABETH CAUFFMAN: This area right here right behind your forehead - called the frontal lobe or the prefrontal cortex, and that part of the brain doesn't fully develop until around age 25.

JOHNSON: Elizabeth Cauffman is a developmental psychologist at the University of California Irvine. She's describing research that suggests young adults can understand right from wrong, but they can't always put on the brakes.


CAUFFMAN: Starting the engine without a skilled driver. The car works. The engine runs. But the person behind the wheel can't control the car.

JOHNSON: Over the past decade, this emerging science about young brains has persuaded the Supreme Court to abolish the death penalty for juveniles. That's people under 18. Now the goal for many criminal justice experts is to focus attention on a slightly older population.

VINCENT SCHIRALDI: People between the ages of 18 and 25 are more developmentally similar to juveniles than they are to fully mature adults. They just are. And our justice system hasn't figured that out yet.

JOHNSON: Vincent Schiraldi is former probation commissioner in New York, and he's leading an effort to rethink how young adults are treated. Schiraldi knows that effort is not without controversy.

SCHIRALDI: This is not just about some feel-good thing to mollycoddle kids. This is a public safety issue.

JOHNSON: That's because, he says, when 18 to 25-year-olds commit crime and serve time in prison, the chances they'll commit another crime are high - 3 out of 4 by some measures. But Schiraldi says no one's doing much to intervene to break that cycle.

SCHIRALDI: We need to help build the bridges for them out of criminal behavior, and this is exactly the time to do it.

JOHNSON: Schiraldi wants states to consider changing laws to send people 21 and under into juvenile courts. He also advocates for programs that offer slightly older defendants lots of supervision and social services, erasing criminal charges if they finish school or get a job. Programs like that are already running in places like Brooklyn and San Francisco. Katherine Weinstein Miller supports alternatives to lockup in her job at the D.A.'s office in San Francisco, but she told the audience at the Justice Department those programs are not without sensitivity and risk.


KATHERINE WEINSTEIN MILLER: The young people in our jails in San Francisco are there for robberies, and they're there for assaults. They're there for taking iPhones, overwhelmingly, and I think it's very scary to have a real conversation about how to invite somebody for a crime with a victim into this kind of court model.

JOHNSON: The idea is especially controversial for young people who commit crimes of violence. The Justice Department hasn't taken a formal position on whether states should change their laws, but Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason says she's convinced prosecutors need to pay more attention to that group of defendants.

KAROL MASON: If we can reduce the number of our young adults that come into our criminal justice system and make sure that we equip them when they come out to get back on the right path, we make them developmentally better, and we also reduce crime.

JOHNSON: The idea of raising the age of responsibility to 21 or older isn't going over very well with many local prosecutors. That includes people like Nancy Parr, commonwealth's attorney in Chesapeake, Va. But Parr says she's open to the idea of more flexible punishments for young adult offenders.

NANCY PARR: They get arrested in a place where there's nothing to divert them to, they're likely to go to jail. They get arrested in, you know, San Francisco, they're going to get diverted and maybe not have a criminal record, and I think just because of where you live - you know, I think that's unfortunate that that might be what dictates your future.

JOHNSON: Parr says smaller communities just don't have the resources, and that's not fair. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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