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A “Third System” for Incarcerated Young Adults

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In recent years, juvenile justice advocates across the country have been considering the idea of a separate, distinct “young adult justice” system for young people ages 18 to 25. The National Criminal Justice Reference Service and the Chronicle for Social Change released publications suggesting this “third system” as an alternative to adult prison, specializing in the treatment of incarcerated young adults in a less hostile environment.

In California, there are currently two routes for people between the ages of 18 and 25 to be incarcerated in state prisons: (1) if they committed a serious, violent, or sex-related felonyat age 18 or older, they will be sentenced to prison; or (2) if they committed a serious felonybefore age 18, were tried and sentenced as adults, and cannot complete the length of their sentence within the juvenile system by age 21, they will be transferred to prison when they turn 18 to complete their sentence. 

Advocates of a separate system for young adults argue that incarcerating this age group in adult prison is harmful because:

  • Studies show that young people in the adult system are more likely to recidivate than their peers in the juvenile system. The juvenile system offers more rehabilitative programs focused on effectively transitioning young people into adulthood than do adult prisons.
  • Researchers have noticed a correlation between aging and declining criminal activity. Housing young people in a crimiogenic environment like an adult prison could disrupt this natural process of “aging out.”
  • Young adults (18-25) are developmentally more similar to juveniles than adults. A majority of young people who are more frequently involved with the justice system have also experienced trauma in their lives, and therefore face further obstacles in their development.

The overall critique of the adult prison system made by “young adult justice” advocates disparages the adult system’s crimiogenic nature and lack of adequate rehabilitative programs for youth during transitional stages in their development. Former San Quentin inmate Gary Scott wrote in his New York Times op-ed that “Prison is too violent, and the necessary programs that can contribute to young prisoners’ rehabilitation are underfunded.” 

But it is important to remember that violence and excessive hostility in prisons are not acceptable living conditions for our incarcerated adults either. While incarcerated young adults may be victimized more often than their older peers, creating a third system for young people avoids the larger issue of much needed reform in adult prisons. Even in California’s juvenile facilities, violence occurs not only between youth, but also between youth and staff.If both the adult and juvenile system cannot secure the safety of those they are housing, how would violence be prevented in a “young adult justice” system?

Perhaps the answer lies not in the creation of more facilities, but in the reform and improvement of our existing systems.Education, treatment and rehabilitative programming must be more accessible throughout the justice system, not only for juveniles and young adults.

Keywords: California Leadership Academy, juvenile justice reform, prison, transitional-aged youth, young adult, youth

Posted in Blog, Correctional Institutions

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