Elizabeth Cauffman, professor of psychological science
“We wanted to create something that was working in the juvenile world and apply it to criminal court for 18- to 25-year-olds in ways that would be developmentally appropriate,” says Elizabeth Cauffman, a UCI professor of psychological science who helped launch the Orange County Young Adult Court. “Studies have shown that adolescent brains work differently than adult brains, and research should guide how the legal system responds.” Steve Zylius / UCI

When it comes to juvenile crime and punishment, it’s a case of law versus biology. While young people are legally recognized as adults at age 18, their brains don’t reach structural and functional maturity until age 25. Regardless of how capable they are in other areas or how high a score they got on their SAT, teens often lack the ability to make sound judgments, control their impulses or consider the consequences of their actions.

Advances in neuroscience have revealed that the brain’s prefrontal cortex – which governs impulse control and decision-making – undergoes significantly more changes during adolescence than at any other stage of life and is the last part of the brain to develop. Better understanding of how teen minds work and numerous studies showing that excessively long sentences actually increase the likelihood of recidivism are helping to alter how courts treat youthful offenders.

“If someone does something wrong, there do need to be consequences – but in a developmentally appropriate way,” says Elizabeth Cauffman, a UCI professor of psychological science who also has appointments in education and law. “We want to find a middle ground that improves outcomes. Juveniles need to be held responsible but not held to adult-level standards.”

The Orange County Young Adult Court is one such attempt. An alternative to criminal court, YAC was launched in August 2018 with a $780,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice. Its creation involved the joint efforts of Cauffman, Orange County Superior Court Judge Maria D. Hernandez ’86, the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, the Orange County Public Defender’s Office, the Orange County Probation Department and the Orangewood Foundation. Only a few such courts exist across the country.

YAC is designed to focus specifically on people between the ages of 18 and 25 who have committed a felony, with the goal of addressing and preventing criminal behavior. Participants are selected at random for the Orange County program, which takes at least 18 months to complete. Individualized action plans include regularly attending court hearings; meeting with case managers and probation officers; setting and achieving educational, employment and behavioral goals; and making restitution payments. Those who successfully fulfill all the requirements will have their felony conviction reduced to a misdemeanor or dismissed.

“Effective, age-appropriate alternatives for youthful offenders must be based on scientific research, so my team is conducting the first randomized control trial of a YAC,” Cauffman says. “Our two-and-a-half-year study involves rigorous data collection and analysis of participants’ experiences while going through the program and as they reintegrate into the community. It’s equally important to identify areas that need improvement as those that are of value so that we can establish interventions to help support positive life outcomes and decrease recidivism.”

Of the initial Orange County YAC cohort of 25 young men, six have completed the program. Ceremonies were held in June and September of 2020 and last month in Hernandez’s courtroom. The graduates stood before the judge, each with the public defender and prosecutor assigned to his case. Their felony convictions were officially dismissed upon the recommendation of the public defenders and after no objections were raised by the prosecutors.

“YAC presents an opportunity for a second chance that requires hard work and commitment. If it works, it benefits the individual and is good for the community, because these young men become productive citizens,” Cauffman says. “Some call it social justice; I call it doing the right thing.”