A California Court for Young Adults Calls on Science

SAN FRANCISCO — On a cloudy afternoon in the Bayview district, Shaquille, 21, was riding in his sister’s 1991 Acura when another car ran a stop sign, narrowly missing them.

Both cars screeched to a halt, and Shaquille and the other driver got out. “I just wanted to talk,” he recalls.

But the talk became an argument, and the argument ended when Shaquille sent the other driver to the pavement with a left hook. Later that day, he was arrested and charged with felony assault.

He already had a misdemeanor assault conviction — for a fight in a laundromat when he was 19. This time he might land in prison.

Instead, Shaquille — who spoke on condition that his full name not be used, lest his record jeopardize his chances of finding a job — wound up in San Francisco’s Young Adult Court, which offered him an alternative.

For about a year, he would go to the court weekly to check in with Judge Bruce E. Chan. Court administrators would coordinate employment, housing and education support for him. He would attend weekly therapy sessions and life-skills classes.

In return, he would avoid trial and, on successful completion of the program, the felony charge would be reduced to a misdemeanor. This was important, because a felony record would make it nearly impossible for him to get a job.

“These are transitional-age youth,” said Carole McKindley-Alvarez, who oversees case management for the court. “They’re supposed to make some kind of screwed-up choices. We all did. That’s how you learn.”

Surprisingly, this alternative legal philosophy springs not from concerns about overcrowded prisons or overburdened courts, but from neuroscience.

Researchers have long known that the adolescent brain is continually rewiring itself, making new connections and pruning unnecessary neurons as it matures. Only recently has it become clear that the process stretches well into early adulthood.

Buried in that research is an uncomfortable legal question: If their brains have not fully matured, how responsible are adults ages 18 to 24 for their crimes?

Should they be treated more like adolescents, handled in the comparatively lenient juvenile system, or more like hardened 35-year-olds? Should young adults be held fully responsible for certain crimes but not others?

After attending a lecture at Harvard on brain development, George Gascón, the San Francisco district attorney, decided to tackle these questions head on. In 2015, he and Wendy Still, then the city’s probation chief, established Young Adult Court, a hybrid of the adult and juvenile justice systems tailored to the biology and circumstances of offenders 18 to 24.

Mr. Gascón and his colleagues argue that neurological immaturity may contribute to criminal behavior. Adult sentences constitute cruel and unusual punishment, they say, and undermine the possibility of rehabilitation.

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Chris AlexakisC.A., justice