The line between a misdemeanor and a felony is thin, and the teenagers who cross it bear a scarlet letter for the rest of their lives — long after they’ve grown into more mature people. Even though the science on emotional and mental development suggests that a 19 year old is fundamentally different from 30 year old, the justice system treats them the same.
That’s why Elizabeth Cauffman, a UCI professor of psychological science, has worked hard alongside partners in the Orange County court system and Orange County jails to develop programs that hold young convicts accountable, while also allowing them to reclaim their futures. In this episode of the UCI Podcast, Professor Cauffman discusses the research on young adult maturation, how these programs were established and why scientific partnerships with the community are so important.
In this episode:
Elizabeth Cauffman, a professor of psychological science at UCI
“Celebrating first graduate of OC Young Adult Court,” a story published by the UCI School of Social Ecology about the first graduate of the Young Adult Court Program
National Institute of Justice, the research, development and evaluation agency of the U.S. Department of Justice. The NIJ has funded both the Young Adult Court and Road to Reentry
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When you turn 18, you become an adult in the eyes of the justice system, and any crimes you commit stay on your record forever. But just because you’re legally an adult doesn’t mean that your brain has caught up with your new status.
Why should prosecutors and judges treat young adult criminals differently? And how is Orange County partnering with UCI researchers to make juvenile justice more just?
From the University of California, Irvine, I’m Aaron Orlowski, and you’re listening to the UCI Podcast. Today, I’m speaking with Elizabeth Cauffman, a professor of psychological science at UCI.
Professor Cauffman, thank you for joining me today on the UCI Podcast.
Thank you for having me. I’m delighted to be here.
Well, so being convicted of a crime, especially a felony, is a life-changing event for people that that happens too. So what happens, for instance, to the life of, say, a 19 year old, when he steals a cell phone and gets caught and gets convicted?
Well, as you noted, it is a life-changing event. A felony basically stays on your record for the rest of your life. So for instance, in the state of California, if you steal something over $950, which your cell phone is often worth more than $950, you’re now looking at a felony. Now, if I steal something that’s $949, I have a misdemeanor. That $1 separates whether or not you have to check the box on whether you can vote, where you can live and whether or not you can get a job. So that felony not just changes the person’s life in terms of the criminal consequence, but also has collateral damage in terms of what they can do back in our society.
But according to the research that you’ve been doing and doing for many years, a 19-year-old kid isn’t done maturing. And so even though this record stays with them for their entire life, they’ve grown into a different person. So how is a 19 year old different developmentally from someone who’s just a little bit older, you know, maybe 30 years old.
That’s a great question and the focus of the research that I do. We look at the similarities and differences between kids and adults because, to be honest, there’s a lot of similarities. Adolescents are very smart. They have the same cognitive capacities. I mean, even young children know the difference between right and wrong. But there’s a lot more going on in development than just the way you think. Your ability to regulate your emotions to think long term. I mean, I think we can all look back, and Aaron don’t share what you did as a 19 year old.
I won’t. I won’t. We’ll save that for a different time.
But I’m sure we can all think back to when we’ve done something we really shouldn’t have done. This is because we have two systems developing: your cognitive system, the way you think, and your emotional system that helps you regulate. That emotional system takes longer to develop. And in fact, the research has shown that that system isn’t fully developed until roughly 25 years of age. And it aligns with the brain. Your brain, the frontal lobe of your brain, that’s the area right behind your forehead, that part of the brain is responsible for that emotional system, that ability to regulate your emotions, to keep you in check. And that helps us understand why even a 19 year old, who may know the difference between right and wrong, still can do the stupid stuff they shouldn’t be doing.
This knowledge that a 19 year old has a different emotional regulation than someone who’s just a little bit older, that knowledge has started to inform how we as a society treat young people differently from more mature adults in the criminal justice system. So how have we evolved as a society in how we handle people who are that age?
I think one of the things that’s been really exciting to see is this movement of social justice. There’s no question that people need to be held accountable when they do something wrong. I mean, every parent knows that, right? The justice system is there to hold people accountable. The question isn’t, whether you hold them accountable, it’s how. We need to be holding people accountable in developmentally appropriate ways. We actually have a lot of research and science that can help guide better treatment and better ways in which to respond so that we can get the better outcome. Because at the end of the day, our goal is to make our community safer, to have an environment where everybody can succeed. And so knowing the science and then how we can apply it to the justice system, I think we have a real opportunity here to make some change.
And one of the things that you’ve been working on is really local here to Orange County. You’ve been working on a program called the Young Adult Court since 2018. Can you tell us a bit about that program and how it was established?
Sure. This was a really exciting program. There’s only a handful of young adult courts across the country. And thanks to forward-thinkers in Orange County, in particular, Judge Hernandez, our assistant presiding judge of Orange County — we wanted to take a model of how we can better address the criminal behavior of 18 to 25 year olds. This court was really developed to determine how can we hold an 18 to 25 year old accountable, but also give them that opportunity for success later down the road. So the goal of this program is that the young men, and right now this program is for young men only, these young men who come into our program — it has to be their first felony. Okay, now don’t get me wrong. If they commit murder, if they commit a very serious crime, they’re not eligible. We have eligible offenses so that there’s not, you know, this very serious level of criminal behavior. But it’s a felony that they would carry with them for the rest of their life. And in this program, they have a lot of work to do. And if they’re successful, they have to at least serve a minimum of 18 months in our program. And upon completion and graduation, the district attorney has agreed to allow the judge to either reduce that felony to a misdemeanor or dismiss it altogether. It’s allowing people to be held responsible for their criminal behavior, to do the work that they have to do to make things right, but not basically to carry that felony for the rest of their life — so that we can have them back in our communities being productive.
So what kind of work do they have to do during that 18-month program?
So in this program, not only are they assigned a probation officer, which is traditional for all people who are in the justice system, they might have to work with a probation officer. They also get a case manager, in which case they have to work with that case manager on maybe re-enrolling in school, getting a job, going to therapy, working toward their next steps of maybe getting even stable living arrangements. They also have to meet with the judge weekly. They have to show up every week, not just to their probation officer and their case manager, but also to the judge. This is a lot more work than typical probation. So if they’re willing to do the work and are willing to get this done, we can actually get them back on track so that they don’t have this felony basically limiting them for the rest of their lives.
I mean, that sounds like a much more humane approach to making sure that people are, as you said, held accountable for their behavior, but also making sure that they can reintegrate into society and contribute in a positive way.
Absolutely. I mean, many of these young men have done things that are wrong and they sometimes have to pay what we call restitution, which is to ensure that they pay back their victims. In our court, our young men are actually able to provide some restitution back to their victims. They’re held accountable for their behavior. There’s a different approach because it’s very hands-on, it’s very developmentally focused. We’re not just holding them into criminal a accountability, we’re teaching life skills. We’re teaching how to get back into the workforce or into a stable living environment, which allows them that opportunity to get their lives back on track.
As this program is ongoing. Are you also pursuing some research questions related to it to potentially help this program serve as a model elsewhere?
Absolutely. So, as I said, there’s a handful of these across the country. Orange County is very forward-thinking in that we are the first, what we would call, randomized control trial in the country. We have a lot more people who are eligible for this court than we can handle because we’re a pilot program. So we actually have what we call a control group, where we have young who could have been in this program, but we just don’t have room for them. And we also follow and interview these young men. And so we’re tracking both groups, those who go through our young adult court and those who go through the system as usual. And what we’re able to do is not just look at if they’re re-offending and if they’re getting in trouble again, but also their educational attainment, their employment, their mental health. We’re trying to see if being in this court actually makes a difference. And we’re one of the first studies to actually do this. We’re funded by the National Institute of Justice to actually investigate whether or not this court works
I mean, this is a long-term study. You’ll be following these young men for years.
And you’re also working on a different program that’s inspired by this one. And this one’s taking place in Orange County jails and it’s called Road to Reentry. And this is brand new. Can you tell us about this particular program?
Absolutely. So the nice thing that I think came out of the Young Adult Court and understanding that 18 to 25 year olds, their development isn’t done yet, we still have a window of opportunity here — that we can be doing things differently. And so the Sheriff’s Office and, you know, Sheriff Barnes and Assistant Sheriff Balicki, Assistant Sheriff Jason Park, they were really instrumental in helping to shape a new way to think about how we treat young men who are incarcerated. Can we do something different there as well? Should we just still be doing treatment as usual? Or could we take a developmental approach into the jail? So we are about to launch a new program in the Orange County Jail specifically for 18 to 25 year olds. They’ll be getting special programming, like cognitive behavioral therapy, drug treatment programming, but also life skills: how to get things back on track for them, getting their resume built so that when they are released and we transition them back to the community, they’re ready to reintegrate successfully, and that they also can get right back into being productive members of our society.
And how is this particular program funded? Is this another grant?
It is. So we also received funding from the National Institute of Justice to fund this program. It’s a five-year grant. What’s really exciting is that the Department of Justice has really recognized that we need to be doing things differently. And so these two programs, the Young Adult Court and the Road to Reentry are new ways of thinking about how we do justice, but in developmentally appropriate ways.
What would it take to expand these types of programs elsewhere in the country? Because the Young Adult Court is a pilot program and one of just a few. And this one, the Road to Reentry is brand new. So how could these be expanded elsewhere?
Well, it’s exciting. I mean, we’d love to expand them, but we first have to show that they work. That’s the hard part. And to be honest, we don’t know yet. This is why we do the research and evaluation. So we follow and track these young men through our programs, not just while they’re in the programs, but also after they’ve graduated or after they’ve been released, to see how do they reintegrate, does this work? And ultimately what you need is to see what is working and what isn’t working, because once you have programs that have been evaluated and that are evidence-based, then you have the opportunity to show, hey, here’s, what’s works, here’s what we can do, and here’s how we can deliver justice, and also keep our community safe and ensure these young men who are in our programs can be productive.
And I think that what you’re saying is a key reason why it is important to have academic researchers, such as yourself, partnering with government agencies or other community organizations on these types of life-changing or life-improving programs. You know, you’re able to lend that research heft to making sure that the interventions work.
That’s I think one of the most important things that we as researchers need to be doing is taking science to the streets. I work with amazing practitioners and they’re experts. They do the hard work every day. The things that I have learned by working with people in the field and the amount of struggles or challenges that they face — and then they turn to me and say, well, what’s the answer? And as a researcher you’re just like, oh, that’s a big burden. If I had that answer, I’d be a rich woman. It’s a hard question. And we really do have a responsibility to build that bridge between the research we know and the practice we employ. And the good news is that the many of the colleagues and people that I worked with in Orange County are really receptive to learning about the research, to conducting the research and to wanting to use the research to move their practice forward. And at the same time they challenge me. Why are you asking these questions? You should be asking this different question, or we need to know more about this. And building those bridges, I think, is so much more important than these two groups working in isolation, because we have so much to offer each other. I can’t do what they’re doing and they don’t do the research I’m doing because that’s not their job. And so by working together, we are hoping that we can actually make a better outcome.
Well, we’ve talked a lot about these programs and mentioned that it’s young men who are going through them. Are there similar programs designed for young women, and why or why not?
And that’s a really important question because women are in the justice system and have special issues as well that need to be addressed. Unfortunately in my research right now, we don’t have the funding. So anybody who wants to fund and include women, we would be happy to talk with you. But unfortunately, I mean, men tend to commit more crime than women. So the base rates are different. So men tend to be thought of first in terms of that. But it doesn’t mean that women’s needs aren’t important. And in fact, if there are funding agencies that want to include that, that would be wonderful. Right now, this is where we’re starting, but it’s not where we’re going to end. We need to do this just as much for the women as we do for the men.
Well so you’ve met a lot of these young men personally, and you’ve worked with them. So how do these interventions change their lives, for these folks who live in Orange County? What do they tell you about what it’s done for them?
We’ve been really fortunate. Since the court has started, we’ve had eight young men graduate. And some of the comments that they’ve made at their graduations are wonderful. Some of our young men have said this court needs to be everywhere in the country, it’s changed my life. They’ve appreciated the support and help. It’s not just people telling them what to do. It’s showing them what to do. I mean, a lot of them are always told, do this, but they don’t know how. This program showed them how. They also just appreciate having somebody to motivate them, believe in them, think that they can change. Having someone believe you can change is very, very powerful. And our young men feel that. So we’ve been really fortunate to see these young men who’ve gone through our program, get their lives back and actually say, this made a difference. And obviously that feels great. And we’re just hoping that we can continue on that trajectory.
Professor Cauffman, thank you so much for joining me today on the UCI Podcast.
It was a pleasure. Thank you for having me