SANTA ANA, Calif.—Two young men appeared in court at the Central Justice Center in Santa Ana on Sept. 18. Both had been convicted of felonies, one with a possible sentence of up to six years, and the other, nine years.
But neither ended up behind bars. Instead, they completed a pilot program in the Orange County Superior Court. They were in court to graduate from that program, called Young Adult Court (YAC).
The two-year program offers support to offenders aged 18 to 23 convicted of a felony for the first time.
It aims to reduce recidivism and promote positive life goals. Under YAC, felony charges may be reduced to misdemeanors or dismissed altogether. And successful completion of YAC clears the offender’s record to remove barriers to employment in the future.
Zamire is one of the two young men who graduated the program on Sept. 18. His felony charges were for theft.
“The program means a lot to me,” Zamire said. “It helped me get through a really rough patch in my life. I’m glad that it’s finally over. And I’m glad I can start the next chapter of my life.”
Elizabeth Cauffman, a professor of psychological science at the University of California–Irvine, helped pioneer YAC. She said this age group makes up the “majority of the people who are going to be in the justice system.”
“That’s who we should focus our time on,” she told The Epoch Times. “So take an 18-, 19-, 20-year-old: If you give them a felony, that guy’s 40 [and] he still has a felony. We have basically just hamstrung our young men, and particularly our young men of color.
“I study adolescent brain development. We know the brain is continuing to develop [at that age], so we still have this opportunity. It’s a window of opportunity, so let’s open it and take advantage. That’s what we’re doing.”
YAC started in 2018, and it consists of four stages. The first stage is engagement, Cauffman said. “Show up, talk to your counselors, get engaged. Follow through with small tasks. Part of it is just learning life skills.”
During the second phase, the student establishes goals, such as getting a job or going back to school. The student works toward those goals in the third stage and achieves them. Then the final stage is about maintaining those achievements.
When Zamire was six months into the program, he received a job offer. But when the company found out he had a felony on his record, it rescinded the offer.
“We worked with him and said, ‘You will achieve that job or any other job when you have this felony off your record,’” said Judge Maria Hernandez, who worked with Cauffman to start YAC. “Zamire, I hope you go right back to them and say, ‘I am felony free.’”
Cauffman said: “We sort of pull back the scaffolding. Each step, we’re less and less involved. By stage four, we kind of just watch to make sure you can do it. And if you hold it up, you move to graduation.”
Deputy District Attorney Jess Rodriguez attended the graduation. “Our number one priority is always going to be public safety,” he said. “And in the old days, the old way of thinking, public safety meant you put people in jail. That’s how you kept people safe. That’s changed.
“Now, people are looking at all sorts of different ways to keep the public safe, and also help people who get charged with crimes so that it can be kind of a win-win.”
Hernandez said it’s important to evaluate outcomes of the program by asking, “Could we do things better? Does the data support what we’re doing?”
YAC participants have intense supervision through probation, according to the program’s official description. If participants act out, Cauffman said, consequences can include GPS monitoring or spending a weekend in jail.
She announced that, on Sept. 17, YAC secured a $1.5 million grant from the National Justice Institute to take the program to youth in the Orange County jail. “We’re basically taking this Young Adult Court model, but we’re bringing it into the jail,” Cauffman said.
Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes was also at the graduation.
“Life is a series of choices and choices got them here,” he said. “But the good choices they made helped them improve their opportunities for the future, and we couldn’t be prouder of both of them.”
Zamire and the other young man, who preferred not to be named, are the second and third students to complete YAC. The first participant graduated from YAC on June 26.