Young Adult Court: Ending Mass Incarceration with Trauma Informed Criminal Justice

The last two decades have given rise to a body of research establishing that young adults are fundamentally different from both juveniles and older adults in how they process information and make decisions.

The prefrontal cortex of the brain — responsible for our cognitive processing and impulse control — does not fully develop until the early to mid-20s. At the same time that young adults are going through this critical developmental phase, many find themselves facing adulthood without supportive family, housing, education, employment and other critical protective factors that can help them navigate this tumultuous period.

Our traditional justice system is not designed to address cases involving these individuals, who are qualitatively different in development, skills, and needs from both children and older adults.

Young Adult Court (YAC) in San Francisco was established in summer 2015 for eligible young adults, ages 18–25. The court strives to align opportunities for accountability and transformation with the unique needs and developmental stage of this age group. The case load in the first year will serve approximately 60–80 clients.

Partner agencies include the Superior Court; Office of the District Attorney; Office of the Public Defender; the Department of Public Health (DPH); Adult Probation Department; Department of Children, Youth and their Families (DCYF); the San Francisco Police Department; and Family Service Agency/Felton. YAC is the first of its kind nationwide.

The Young Adult Court was formed because the district attorney’s office had a vision of treating transitional age youth differently. The DA’s office reached out to the Superior Court to form a collaboration that would begin a young adult court as a part of the Collaborative Court Programs.

A collaborative court works in partnership with multiple city agencies including the Superior Court, Adult Probation Department, Office of the District Attorney, Office of Public Defender, and community treatment providers, along with DPH and DCYF.

There are very few collaborative court programs in the US and San Francisco is extremely excited to be a leader in developing an innovative collaborative court program. Two key treatment partners will be Goodwill Industries and the Family Service Agency as well as other DCYF and DPH youth providers.

Referrals will be made through all the partner agencies. If a youth is at risk of being re-incarcerated or has significant charges, we will provide the young adult court as an opportunity to divert from the prison system.