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Were you mature at 18? Jails get it wrong by treating young adults as real adults

Posted April 15, 2014, at 11:40 a.m.
Last modified April 15, 2014, at 12:06 p.m.
Michael Rocque
Michael Rocque

The notion that certain things are “set in stone” and unchanging is a popular one in the U.S. “People do not change” is a widespread belief. We tend to think of characteristics such as intelligence and personality as relatively stable entities.

However, recent research is challenging these ideas, demonstrating, for example, that intelligence may be more fluid than previously believed.

Along these lines, until relatively recently, the idea that individuals reached full maturity in late adolescence was widely accepted. As a result, 18 was demarcated as the official age of adulthood, at which point individuals can vote, smoke, serve in the military and serve time as an “adult” in the correctional system.

As society has changed, the period at which true “adulthood” is achieved has been pushed back. In fact, some social scientists argue that the early-to-mid-20s represent a period of “ emerging adulthood” now, rather than full-blown maturity. More 20-somethings are living with their parents than ever, delaying traditional adult status markers such as getting married and having children.

Advances in neuroscience show that it may not be just that young adults lack “social” maturity; they may also be lacking in cognitive or brain maturity. In the last decade, evidence has emerged to indicate that the brain is still developing through the mid-20s. In particular, changes relating to increased self-control and ability for rational thought are occurring, which have a significant effect on behavior.

Despite these advances, the correctional system is still divided along juvenile-adult lines based on the age 18.

In fact, until recently, a push was made across some jurisdictions to treat those younger than 18 as adults, for particular crimes. Simon Singer has called this trend “ recriminalizing delinquency.”

In 1997, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention reported that every state in the U.S. allowed those under 18 to be prosecuted in the adult system. Typically, what this amounts to is that juveniles are treated more harshly with less appropriate programming than they ordinarily would have received.

To the extent that individuals are not fully developed and continue to mature up through the 20s, this approach may be detrimental. In fact, some research indicates that youth who are placed within the adult system fare worse in terms of recidivism.

The juvenile system historically is based upon the notion of parens patriae, in which the state was to act as the youth’s parental figure. Thus, the juvenile system was meant to be nurturing and sensitive to the developing nature of youth.

The Maine Department of Corrections, in recognition of the developing nature of individuals past the age of 18, is launching a Young Adult Offender Program, which will target moderate to high-risk inmates, who have not been in the adult system before, ages 18-26.

In essence, the Young Adult Offender Program is an extension of the juvenile system for young adults — or “emerging adults.” It is a program designed to help those who may be in a transitional period in life and who may benefit from more comprehensive programming and services than are typically available in the adult facilities.

Services that will be available in the Young Adult Offender Program will include: substance abuse treatment; education and vocational programming; cognitive behavioral therapy; mental health services; family therapy; and parenting education. The program seeks to help offenders take responsibility for their actions and develop empathy, along with pro-social skills, self-awareness and problem-solving strategies. The Young Adult Offender Program is located in the Mountain View Youth Development Center in Charleston.

This program is innovative and unique across the nation — one of the first of its kind. It has already attracted attention from national advocacy groups. To be clear, the intention of the program is not to “baby” individuals who have, in fact, harmed others and society. Rather, it is a recognition that people who are still maturing can benefit from programming generally reserved for those in the juvenile branch of the criminal justice system.

The program has the potential to have a significant impact on the safety of Maine communities, as well as offer a blueprint for correctional systems across the nation.

Michael Rocque is the director of research at the Maine Department of Corrections and a member of the Maine Regional Network, part of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear every other week.

 

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