A Young Adult Court Based on Young Adult Brains; Early Lessons

This blog post was written by Jennifer Henderson-Frakes of Social Policy Research Associates. The full report was written by Jennifer Henderson-Frakes, Sukey Leshnick, and Hannah Diaz of Social Policy Research Associates.


San Francisco’s Young Adult Court (YAC) is a groundbreaking model for rethinking how the developmental characteristics of transitional age youth (TAY) should inform the criminal justice system’s response to this population.

Eligible young adults, ages 18-25, may participate in the YAC program instead of the regular criminal court process with the aim of supporting positive life outcomes and avoiding recidivism.

YAC’s unique nature is due not only to its deep roots in neuroscience, but also in its prioritization of participants who have committed serious felony offenses. In this way, San Francisco is demonstrating a commitment to altering the composition of its in-custody population where TAY are overrepresented, as well as the life trajectory of young adults with serious crimes and barriers.

Of the 123 YAC participants served over the first 1.5 years, 64% were African American and males comprised the large majority (75%). Over one-quarter were on probation at point of entry.

YAC Participant Race/Ethnicity

YAC Participants’ Probation Status at Point-of-Entry

SPR’s evaluation of YAC’s planning and early implementation yielded insights important for continuous improvement, as well for the efforts of other local areas.

During the YAC planning period, program planners: (1) acted on local data indicating the overrepresentation of TAY in the justice system and emerging brain research focused on young adults; (2) capitalized on exceptional prior experience with specialized collaborative court models and a local commitment to funding TAY services; (3) mobilized diverse city agencies and partners; (4) defined YAC eligibility criteria; and (5) designed the program’s core elements.

YAC’s early implementation was marked by a full launch of a collaborative court model, a healthy demand for its services, and a set of individual partners serving young adults with dedication and care.

Following are core strengths of YAC’s structure, important for facilitating young adult success:

  • A compassionate, diverse court. YAC conveys compassion and caring to its young adult For some participants, YAC is the first time they’ve had a sense of support and received praise for their accomplishments. YAC is represented by highly diverse and dedicated individuals, including African American lawyers and an Asian American Judge. This representation is important for personal relatability, potential role models, and an effective YAC.
  • A court grounded in brain research. The court is based on neuroscience that indicates the brains of young adults are fundamentally different from those of adults in terms of processing information and making decisions—thus requiring different strategies for avoiding recidivism, promoting engagement, and facilitating positive outcomes.
  • An opportunity for young adult voice and self-advocacy. The YAC affords young adult participants a primary voice in their own wellness plans, as well as in the court setting and in their interactions with the YAC
  • Effective service-flow components and Core components include the YAC Handbook’s phases of young adult participation, court appearances as an element of accountability, engagement with clinical case managers, using degree of engagement to help determine frequency of court appearances, and dialectical behavior therapy groups.

Moving forward, YAC’s most prominent areas of ongoing development are:

  • Continuing to address the balance and implications of clinical and criminal justice worlds being brought together in This touches on various aspects of implementation, including: continuing to negotiate eligibility exceptions; agreeing on appropriate responses to disengaged young adults not meeting YAC expectations; and taking steps to make young adults more comfortable in their interactions with criminal justice system representatives
  • Assessing the relative strengths of two different case management models, including a blended clinical-case manager The YAC model will provide important data on two different case management models for young adults on probation and not on probation. In particular, a continued area of focus will be on whether the same staff can effectively provide both clinical (therapeutic) and case management services, or whether young adults are better served by a separation of function.
  • Screening for young adult suitability and Further YAC implementation may shed light on common characteristics of successful and terminated YAC participants that may be used to inform whether potential participants are indeed suitable and likely to succeed in YAC.
  • Emphasizing consistency in rewards and YAC partners emphasized the need for more consistency in rewards and responses to YAC participant behavior, whether positive or negative.
  • Addressing key service Housing and mentoring emerged as the most frequently mentioned service gaps for YAC participants, with residential and developmentally-appropriate substance abuse also cited.
  • Knowing when to “let go” of both successful and struggling young adults. Partners continue to grapple with when to “let go” of participants who are ready to graduate, as well as participants who are not meeting the expectations of the Young Adult Court.

View the full report here.