Emerging Adults and the Future of the Criminal Justice System

emerging adults, criminal justice, Illinois Criminal Defense AttorneyIn 1899, the nation’s first juvenile criminal court was established right here in Cook County, Illinois. The goal of the new system was to prevent the mistakes and poor choices of young people from evolving into a lifetime of bad decisions and criminal prosecution. The juvenile court was—and remains to this day—primarily focused on rehabilitating young offenders rather than severely punishing criminal activity. Once an individual turns 18, however, the situation changes dramatically, as juvenile-type behavior such as shoplifting or an after-school fight suddenly carry much more severe criminal penalties.

New Demographic Group

Perhaps, in past generations, 18 was a reasonable, albeit distinct, threshold between youth and adulthood. The evolution of society, however, seems to indicate that cultural concepts of an adult may be changing, and that the criminal justice system may need to evolve as well. That which was once considered a transitional stage has begun gaining recognition as a unique demographic age group. Developmental experts and scholars are now using the term “emerging adults” to describe people between 18 and 25 years old. Compared to 50 years ago, there is little question that emerging adults are less independent than in the past, and many have yet to settle into what most consider to be “adult roles.”

So what does that mean for the criminal justice system? Federal statistics already indicate that arrest trends for criminal activity peak before age 25, with very few adults being arrested for the first time after that age. To many, this is a clear sign that the criminal system should focus its energy on this particular age group in attempts to reduce crime and repeat offenders.

The Search for Answers

George Timberlake, retired circuit court judge and current Chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, pointed out that some of the practices inherent to the juvenile court system may be applicable for emerging adults as well. He indicated his awareness, however, that more information is needed on the potential affects of such activity before sweeping policy changes can be made. “Risk assessment for supervision and incarceration strategies can be productive for emerging adults,” Timberlake observed, “but more research is needed as to particular risks, needs and protective factors in this age group.”

Likewise, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) conducted a study group which found that “young adult offenders ages 18-24 are more similar to juveniles that to adults with respect to their offending, maturation and life circumstance.” As a result, the NIJ proposed several possible approaches, including raising the age limit of juvenile court systems, and establishing special courts for the emerging adult group. Similar practices are already in place in countries such as Sweden and Germany.

Until changes are made to the criminal justice system, anyone age 18 or over charged with a crime faces serious penalties and consequences. If you are facing criminal charges, contact an experienced Chicago criminal defense attorney. We will review your case, help you understand your options, and work with you toward protecting your future. Call 312-270-0999 to schedule an appointment today.

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