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Emerging Adults

The criminal legal system should treat emerging adults differently.

Emerging Adulthood (18-25) is a transitional period between adolescence and adulthood. Emerging adults have unique developmental characteristics and require a different approach from the criminal legal system.

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Roper v. Simmons banned the death penalty for people under the age of 18 and initiated a set of rulings codifying the principle that children are “categorically less culpable” within the criminal legal system. The court also acknowledged that “the qualities that distinguish juveniles from adults do not disappear when an individual turns 18.” 

Since the Roper decision, a growing body of research has been developed around “emerging adults.” Scientists have found that the brain continues to develop well into one’s 20s. In fact, the areas of the brain that govern judgment and impulse are among the last to form. As a result, children and emerging adults respond with more emotion than adults. Emerging adults, like their younger peers, are prone to poor-decision making, impulsivity, peer influence, and risky behavior.


Many Illinois and federal laws already recognize the developmental characteristics of emerging adults. 

Numerous states and federal statutes limit young adults’ abilities to engage in risky behaviors, such as drinking, purchasing firearms, and driving commercial vehicles. Others extend protective support to young adults to help them in their transition to adulthood, providing them with continued health care coverage, education and training programs, and child welfare services. 

Illinois’ current approach to criminal sentencing of youth is counterproductive. Lengthy sentences are not a driver of community safety or crime reduction. Additionally, incarceration has been shown to be detrimental to the psychological development of adolescents and emerging adults. It may even prevent a successful transition to adulthood. Prison isolates a young person from their family, limits their opportunities to build positive relationships, prevents them from learning to live independently, and offers few meaningful educational opportunities. For many young people, it can also be traumatizing. 

Though they are recognized as “less culpable,” people 20 and younger are convicted at higher rates than older adults. A report from the Columbia Justice Lab found that in Illinois, emerging adults make up about a third of all arrests and almost 30 percent of the prison population, despite accounting for only 10 percent of the state’s population. Moreover, there are currently 1,216 people serving life and de-facto sentences for crimes that happened before they turned 21. 

Other data suggests that racial disparities are even starker among the emerging adult population than the total prison population. In Illinois, 70 percent of people serving natural life sentences for crimes that occurred before they turned 21 are Black (Restore Justice analysis). Nationally, Black men between the ages of 18 and 25 (emerging adults) are 9.4 times more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers.