SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) – The approach to fighting crime is polarizing. Some believe in the three strikes law and the lock-and-key strategy. Others say the method hasn’t worked for decades.
San Francisco’s unique Young Adult Court takes a different approach. It is based on the assumption that an 18- to 24-year-old criminal suspect does not fit in a juvenile or adult court.
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The ultimate goal of the program is to step in and help before it’s too late.
“I was lost, roaming the streets, no career, no future, nothing,” said Maria, a graduate of the Young Adult Court.
Three years ago, Maria faced the possibility of being jailed at the age of 23.
“With the crime I was accused of, someone would look at my résumé and say we don’t want to pick this girl up,” Maria said.
Growing up on the infamous Sunnydale Housing Project in San Francisco, she dropped out of school early and stumbled upon the criminal path.
“Some scholars have said that 18- to 24-year-olds are like cars made entirely of all of the ingredients, but sometimes the brakes don’t work in a stressful situation,” said Bruce Chan, Young Adult Court judge.
The developing brain of a potential lifelong criminal who is over the age of 18 but not quite an adult needs to be handled differently within the criminal justice system.
Chan runs a first ever courtroom of its kind in the country and is a hybrid of a juvenile and adult court.
“I would say the vast majority (of the youth in the program) have low incomes, a high percentage were in the care system because they were neglected or abused as children,” said Chan.
Almost all cases involving lethal weapons, aggravated assault and gang activity are excluded from participation in the program.
Each year, more than 60 participants are referred by the prosecutor, adult probation service, private attorney, and prosecutor.
“We always look at the individual charges and allegations in each case, and that’s because public safety is our priority,” said Azita Ghafourpour, assistant district attorney in San Francisco.
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As part of the program, each participant comes to the Young Adult Court in the Justice Hall at least once a week. It usually takes about one to one and a half years for all requirements to be met.
“It’s an incredibly tough program that requires a lot of work,” said Andrea Lindsay, associate defense attorney for San Francisco.
The program’s young offenders also attend educational and therapy sessions and meet with case managers every week.
“All the while, I would act like I wasn’t going to court and not calling. I’m 23 and I don’t have to report to anyone,” said Maria.
“Make no mistake, we blame people,” said Chan.
In return, it avoids a possible conviction for a crime that could permanently affect employment opportunities.
Lindsay has represented some of the 130 participants who have completed the program since it started in 2015.
“These are not young children whose lives should be sent to prison,” she said.
Detention figures show that more than 2.3 million people are in prison. The young adult population between 18 and 24 is disproportionately represented and also has some of the highest rates of behavioral disorders.
For Maria, too, life is dramatically different these days. She works at a food distribution center in the Mission, which was impossible not long ago.
“The tears are coming out, because if it weren’t for them I’d be on the street,” said Maria. “If it didn’t break me, it made me do it. I could say it made me and made me who I am. “
The latest data from the Young Adult Court shows that 73% of graduates avoided re-arrest in San Francisco, but it’s unclear what that number would be if other counties were included.
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Those associated with the program hope to collect more data on relapses and new arrests in the future as more people graduate.