Emerging adults, those between the ages 18 and 25, have unique characteristics and needs when it comes to addressing criminal justice involvement. While their bodies may be grown, their brains are still developing, meaning they don’t yet have the cognitive or emotional maturity of an adult. However, in many places, the court and carceral systems don’t treat them accordingly, which research shows can lead to trauma, lifelong justice involvement, and denial of opportunities to be successful, contributing members of their communities.
Figure 1: Transformative Justice Court Diversion Program
Lone Star Justice Alliance (LSJA) in Austin, Texas, is doing its part to improve conditions for emerging adults. LSJA provides advocacy and education around developmentally appropriate responses to youth and emerging adults (using an expanded age range of 18 to 27). The ultimate goal is to create a criminal justice system that treats individuals involved in it with equity and dignity to promote resilience, conserve costs, and increase public safety.
Trauma-Informed Programming to Educate and Influence Individuals Who Provide Services and Shape Policy
According to current Federal Bureau of Prison Inmate Statistics, young adults (ages 18-25) account for 5.5 percent of the prison population. Historical data patterns suggest 75 percent of these emerging adults will return to the prison system within 3 years of release. Many of these young people have faced multiple adverse childhood experiences, such as poverty, maltreatment, child welfare system involvement, and other sources of trauma. Childhood exposure to trauma is a strong predictor of later justice system involvement. To counteract these risk factors, LSJA takes a three-pronged approach to help improve conditions and prevent further justice involvement for emerging adults with past system contact, through three primary programs:
- Transformative Justice, a program focused on identifying innovative strategies for helping youth at risk of justice system involvement and emerging adults involved in the criminal justice system;
- The ReImagine Justice Institute, a program focused on strategic connections, training, and education within communities and the justice system to increase knowledge and understanding of the causes of and appropriate response to youth and emerging adult behavior; and
- JustSentencing, a program focused on challenging policies and laws that sentence youth and young adults according to adult models.
Figure 2: Waters Conducting a Training
LSJA’s approach to systemic change reflects their understanding of the significance of trauma in the lives of justice-involved young people. LSJA Chief Innovations Officer Yulise Reaves Waters, Esq., and Director of Training Nydia Thomas, J.D., have been through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s GAINS Center’s trauma-informed response train-the-trainer course. The course enables them to deliver the How Being Trauma-Informed Improves Criminal Justice System Responses 4-hour training. This training provides people working in the criminal justice and behavioral health systems with greater awareness of the impact of trauma on behavior and teaches safe, effective responses to people who have been traumatized. The training can also provide an opportunity for partners to develop system-wide strategies to embed trauma-informed response practices into policies and protocols to improve outcomes for individuals with histories of justice involvement and trauma.
Waters and Thomas can leverage this training in the community and with their partners to help build a system that is better informed and able to appropriately address behavior among youth in their communities. “When you overlay trauma on a developing adolescent brain, you get behaviors that can be interpreted as criminal,” says Thomas. “We work to inform all people in or around the criminal justice system working with emerging adults that what they’re actually seeing is often a trauma response, and there are developmentally appropriate, non-punitive ways to help address these behaviors.”
Working Toward System-Wide Change through Education and Training
The team at LSJA has extensive experience in the Texas criminal justice system and has seen how it disproportionately impacts emerging adults. Imposing adult court requirements on young people leads to compound problems when those conditions are not met. For example, conditions around employment can be tough for a young person who may not have a driver’s license, car, or the job skills or education required.
LSJA works to educate defense attorneys and prosecutors on trauma, positive youth development, and race and social justice issues to reframe their perception of and approach to young adults. “One of our primary goals is to help the community and criminal justice system partners understand the causes of certain behaviors in young people and best practices for responding to them,” says Thomas. “Juvenile and emerging adult justice is complicated in Texas—it’s often a mix of quasi-civil and criminal law. We intentionally focus on providing robust tools and training to law practitioners operating within our complex system.”
Building the Capacity of Emerging Adults through Supportive and Innovative Programming
Figure 3: LSJA Just Careers Program Kickoff Event
LSJA’s transformative justice model incorporates evidence-based best practices and principles paramount to youth thriving. This model informs their education of criminal justice system professionals, their outreach, and their youth programming, which are all part of their Transformative Justice work. “LSJA’s Transformative Justice model includes innovative solutions that shift from a punitive system to one that focuses on the underlying unmet needs that drive system involvement,” says Waters. “We offer programming and partnerships with other organizations to meet those needs and help young people succeed.”
Figure 4: LSJA Participant teaching college staff how to drive a backhoe
A new innovative workforce program for young adults (ages 18 to 27) provides justice-impacted or justice-involved individuals with 12 weeks of paid full-time training. In partnership with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), students receive classroom instruction and hands-on internship-based experience in heavy equipment operation. Upon completion of the program, graduates receive both TxDOT certification to be heavy equipment operators and full-time job placement.
The program is relatively new—only three cohorts have completed it—but it’s showing success. The LSJA team hopes to eventually work with the courts to use it as an alternative to incarceration. “People in this age group are highly susceptible to positive behavior change and have a tremendous desire to grow and learn,” says Reaves Waters. “They often just need to be given a chance.”
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