The years between ages 16 and 24 are a time of great social and developmental transition. Young people in this age range are often called transition-age youth (TAY), emerging adults, or youth in transition.[i] While young people are legally adults at age 18, research shows that their brains are not fully developed until at least the mid-20s. The pre-frontal cortex, which governs impulse control and abstract reasoning, is the last region of the brain to mature, usually not until around age 25.[ii]

Nonetheless, individuals are considered adults by the criminal justice system at age 18, or, in many states, even younger, depending on circumstances such as the severity of the crime. Treating these individuals as adults in the legal system can be problematic, as their abilities to use reason and think through consequences are not fully established, and poor—but developmentally appropriate—choices can lead to justice system involvement and subsequent negative outcomes, including mental health concerns and lost opportunities.

Risks Due to Age, Development, and Racial Disparities

It is well established that justice involvement early in life can lead to stigma, fewer educational and professional opportunities, and increased future justice involvement.[iii] Justice-involved TAY are more likely to have histories of trauma or exposure to violence than any other subset of the population.[iv] About 70% of youth involved with the justice system have diagnosable mental illness and about a quarter have major mental illness. As many as two-thirds of justice-involved youth with a mental disorder also have a substance use disorder.[v] Additionally, the experience of justice involvement itself can be traumatic.

TAY from marginalized populations are particularly at risk for justice system involvement and related negative behavioral health and social outcomes. Young people of color, especially young men, are more likely to be arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated.[vi] Black young men in their late teens (ages 18-19) are up to 12 times more likely to be incarcerated than their White peers.[vii] “Racial and ethnic disparities magnify the collateral consequences of justice system involvement for emerging adults of color, who are already experiencing challenges inherent in this period of transition to independent adulthood,” according to the Emerging Adult Justice Project at Columbia University.[viii] Those collateral consequences include limited abilities to advance their educations or join the workforce and enjoy the rewards of those activities (e.g., stable incomes, housing).

Brain science shows us that in the later years of adolescent development, as new cognitive skills emerge, the ability to reason and consider consequences improves.[ix] Sensation seeking, risk taking, and susceptibility to peer influence naturally peak in adolescence and are all factors that can contribute to activity leading to justice system involvement. However, late adolescence also presents an opportunity for ongoing learning. Young adults benefit from healthy, developmentally appropriate environments to learn to make healthy choices. For instance, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Youth Build Program supports community-based pre-apprenticeship job training and education programs for young adults (ages 16 to 24) who have dropped out of high school and are not employed. Not completing high school is a risk factor for justice involvement (as is unemployment), especially among young men of color.[x] Supportive environments such as this can help steer TAY in a healthy direction and build skills and resources for a successful adulthood.

Because of these factors, many individuals and organizations are working to reduce justice involvement for TAY through social and educational programs and by pursuing reforms to the criminal justice system to focus less on punitive strategies and more on helping these young people build skill and strengths to be successful in adulthood.

This is one reason that many interested parties advocate for increasing the age for adult justice system involvement, so that people in their late teens and early twenties can participate in community-based supports and positive development activities. Advocates argue that developmentally appropriate responses, such as focusing on rehabilitation, educational programming, family engagement, and positive youth development programs, will lead to better outcomes. Research shows that retention and confinement lead to more recidivism among justice-involved youth than community-based services.[xi] Furthermore, youth who are tried and incarcerated in the adult system have a higher rate of recidivism than youth detained in youth-focused settings.[xii] Vermont, California, Connecticut, Illinois, and many other states have introduced legislation or created task forces to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction.

Select Strategies, Interventions, and Support Models

The following is a very brief summary of some current programs and strategies across the justice continuum to help promote developmentally appropriate responses to and reduce justice involvement among TAY. While many other promising approaches exist, the following three were selected because they address TAY from different perspectives: legislative, judicial, and community.

  • Legal Reform. Some states and stakeholders have begun to explore shifting the transition from juvenile to adult jurisdiction to more developmentally appropriate ages, ranging from 18 to 26. For instance, Lone Star Justice Alliance in Texas is working to remove 17-year-olds from the adult justice system, and in Massachusetts, the Raise the Age campaign advocates for legislation to gradually raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction from 17 to 20 years old.
  • Multisystemic Therapy for Emerging Adults. Multisystemic Therapy for Emerging Adults (MST-EA) relies on the principles of an evidence-based and highly successful juvenile intervention, multisystemic therapy (MST), and applies them to TAY with serious behavioral health issues and involvement with the justice system. MST is an intensive, family- and community-based intervention that entails young people involved in the juvenile justice system and their families working with counselors at home or school to reduce criminal activity. MST-EA follows the same path, engaging TAY with counselors to focus on successful transition to adulthood. For individuals involved with the child welfare system, transitioning to adulthood often means losing access to services that help them live. When TAY “age out” of support systems, they become vulnerable to poverty, homelessness, and other social risk factors for criminal justice involvement. In some places, child welfare systems are using MST-EA to help TAY facing such risks transition out of the system. (For instance, see Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families MST-EA program.)
  • Young Adult Courts. Young adult courts are dedicated courts for emerging adults or TAY. These courts usually focus on intensive services, frequent monitoring, and diversion programming to help young adults move toward more positive life choices. Three courts—San Francisco Young Adult Court, Brooklyn Young Adult Court, and Chicago (North Lawndale) Restorative Justice Community Court—focus on collaboration, diversion, and restorative justice for young adults (featured in more detail in the 2021 report Key Elements of Specialized Courts for Emerging Adults from the Emerging Adult Justice Project at Columbia University).


Emerging adult justice is a fairly new area of interest that blends biological and sociological research and findings to understand and better support young people transitioning to adulthood who are at risk of involvement or are involved with the criminal justice system. The following resources can help those interested stay up to date on this evolving area.


[i] “Transition and Aging Out,”, accessed November 28, 2022,

[ii] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, The Teen Brain: 7 Things to Know, NIH Publication No. 20-MH-8078 (2020),

[iii] Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Alternatives to Detention and Confinement (2014),

[iv] S. Perker and L. Chester, Emerging Adult Justice in Massachusetts (Harvard Kennedy School, Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy, 2017). Retrieved from

[v] National Conference of State Legislatures, Mental Health Needs of Juvenile Offenders (n.d.),

[vi] L. Kazemian,  “Pathways to Desistance From Crime Among Juveniles and Adults: Applications to Criminal Justice Policy and Practice,” NCJ 301503, in Desistance From Crime: Implications for Research, Policy, and Practice (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, 2021), NCJ 301497.

[vii] E.A. Carson, E.A., Prisoners in 2019, Bureau of Justice Statistics, NCJ 255115 (October 2020)

[viii] Emerging Adult Justice Learning Community, A Roadmap to Reform: Key Elements of Specialized Courts for Emerging Adults (2021),

[ix] M. Arain, M. Haque, L. Johal, P. Mathur, W. Nel, A. Rais, R. Sanhu, and S. Sharma, (2013), Maturation of the adolescent brain. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 449.

[x] A. Bacher-Hicks, S. Billings, D. J. Deming, (2021), Proving the School-to-Prison Pipeline. Education Next. 21(4),

[xi] Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Alternatives to Detention and Confinement, (2014),

[xii] S. Johnson and J. Rosch, Juvenile or Adult Court: Research on Future Offending, (Duke University Center for Child and Family Policy, Brief 4, 2015),

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