Recent Reforms

A number of states in the United States have deployed the following approaches to improve emerging adult justice. The EAJP supports those methods through thorough research and policy development.

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Expungement gives emerging adults the possibility to seal their criminal records. States like Michigan, New York and Florida have established laws that allow young adults’ convictions to remain confidential. A case-by-case process allows emerging adults to reduce or remove their criminal charges from their records by fulfilling certain conditions, like attending intensive programs.

Hybrid Laws

Some states have laws, usually called “youthful offender” provisions, that apply to emerging adults under the age of 18 years old. For example, under Massachusetts’ youthful offender provision, prosecutors can choose to prosecute emerging adults as “youthful offenders.” In those cases, a juvenile judge leads the case in a juvenile court. States like Vermont have hybrid models that apply to youth older than 18 years old. Those hybrid laws make emerging adults more likely to receive rehabilitative services that are not available through the adult criminal justice system.

Raise the Age

In recent years, several states in the United States have raised the age limit for emerging adults in juvenile/family courts. In most states, the age of criminal responsibility typically begins at 17 years old. However, states are considering raising their age of juvenile jurisdiction to include emerging adults. In 2018, Vermont enacted legislation, which will include 18-year-olds and 19-year-olds in the juvenile system by 2020 and 2022 respectively.

Legislative changes to expand juvenile jurisdiction can affect emerging adults in the criminal justice system in three important ways. First, they can raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction. Second, they can allow judges to consider age as a mitigating factor in their sentencing decision, which encourages lesser sentences. Third, they can expunge criminal records for emerging adults, which reduces the long-term challenges associated with criminal justice involvement.

Specialized Correction Units

Specialized correction units are separate facilities for emerging adults, typically within adult jails or prisons, which are usually more therapeutic than punitive. They often include educational programs like vocational training, access to college courses, and employment opportunities. Programs focus on building trusting relationships with emerging adults, providing counseling, and substance abuse and mental health treatment. Those correction units resemble juvenile facilities, and provide incentives, such as reduced sentences for participants who successfully complete programs.

Specialized Courts

Specialized courts adopt a problem-solving model that encourages restorative justice. In a specialized court, a judge or parole authority leads an interdisciplinary team in achieving successful case management and therapeutic jurisprudence.

Emerging adult courts are often modeled on drug courts or juvenile/family courts. They adopt a model that includes frequent contact through court hearings and intensive services to assess participant progress. Participants who complete the program successfully can benefit from reduced charges and/or have their criminal records expunged. In some emerging adult courts, participants have a graduation ceremony to acknowledge their accomplishment.

Specialized Probation

Probation programs for emerging adults sometimes overlap with specialized courts. They include emerging adults who are involved in the criminal justice system but are not currently incarcerated. In most cases, those young adults live in their home communities. Specialized probation programs often have specific eligibility criteria that exclude emerging adults who committed violent or gang-related crimes, but some have a case-by-case method to select participants.

Probation officers tend to receive training in trauma, moral decision-making, impulsivity and brain development in emerging adults to enable officers to provide quality individualized services. Officers sometimes take on the role of life coaches and counselors, helping emerging adults build professional and social skills. Like specialized courts, the programs use an incentive mechanism. For example, participants who complete the program successfully can benefit from reduced charges and/or have their criminal records expunged.

Other Specialized Provisions

In Massachusetts, for example, a new bill provides emerging adults with individualized assessments, reentry plans at the beginning of their sentence, family contact, and allows them to be released when still in custody of the state so that they can return to their community.