Abraham walked into a Santa Ana courtroom Friday, June 26, hobbled by the weight of a felony.
His public defender asked the judge to “dismiss all matters.”
“We have absolutely no objections,” the deputy district attorney responded.
All agreed, Orange County Superior Court Judge Maria D. Hernandez wiped clean Abraham’s slate – untethering him from the stain of past mistakes.
In that happy moment, Abraham became the first graduate of the county’s Young Adult Court, a two-year program that gives first-time felons a second chance.
The inaugural class consists of 25 students, randomly selected from hundreds of men between the ages of 18 and 23. Those who complete the course can have their convictions reduced or dismissed.
Only a handful of “young adult courts” exist in the country. Orange County’s is the first to collect “rigorous data to tell us if this program works,” Hernandez noted.
UCI psychology professor Elizabeth Cauffman helped launch the program in 2018 after receiving a $780,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice. Now she hopes to keep it going with another cash infusion.
Cauffman specializes in adolescent brain development, leading her to question a justice system that permanently punishes youthful misdeeds.
The brain’s frontal lobe, which governs impulse control and decision making, does not completely mature until the age of about 25, Cauffman said. “Before then, we are at the highest risk for doing stupid stuff.”
“Most kids grow out of crime,” she added. “Studies over the past 100 years show that, statistically, criminal acts peak at around 20 years of age. Crime drops dramatically starting at the age of 25.”
Stealing a bike valued at more than $950 can earn someone a felony, Cauffman said, thereby closing the door to educational scholarships and a host of jobs.
“In California, you can’t get a dog-walking license with a felony on your record,” Cauffman said. “People can change. Why should they wear that scarlet letter the rest of their lives?”
Young Adult Court does not simply let offenders off the hook.
“We still hold people accountable,” Cauffman said. “It’s not ‘whether to’ but ‘how to.’ This court takes brain developmental research and applies it to the legal system.”
Abraham, who requested The Orange County Register not publish his last name and other identifying details, took part in a robbery when he was 19. “I did not set out that day with the intention of committing a crime,” he said.
After pleading guilty, he served six months in prison.
But once out on probation, Abraham quickly discovered that he wasn’t really free. The stigma of a felony shadowed his every attempt to hit the restart button. Employers wouldn’t hire him and landlords wouldn’t rent to him.
“I felt like a total failure,” Abraham told the court. “This program blessed me with the opportunity to get my life back on track. It should be available to all young adults, and should go nationwide.”
In an interview, Abraham said he joined Young Adult Court with some reluctance.
“I was being hardheaded,” he recalled. “I didn’t want to do the homework. But then I realized I just had to suck it up.”
The program lays out steps participants must accomplish – such as attending all court hearings, meeting with probation officers and undergoing mental health, employment and education counseling.
His support team included Hernandez, Cauffman, caseworkers with the Orangewood youth services foundation, his probation officer and his public defender.
“We became family,” Abraham said. “Guidance is key, and they were there for me every step of the way.”
Those family members, as well as his father and siblings, witnessed the celebration of his accomplishment. Abraham loves basketball, so Cauffman invited UCI head basketball coach Russ Turner as a surprise guest.
Unable to attend in person due to the social distancing constraints of coronavirus, some of Abraham’s cohorts watched his graduation via Zoom.
County officials including Supervisor Andrew Do and Sheriff Don Barnes were also in attendance.
“My heart is overflowing with joy,” Do said in a speech. “The shift in the way we think (about criminal justice) is momentous.”
Hernandez, too, marveled at the legal system’s transformation in attitudes and goals.
“When I started, our job was to just lock them up,” she said. “Now we all recognize that there’s a better way to do business.”
Abraham said that he is “beyond thankful” for that change of heart.
“Everyone has a purpose, everyone deserves another shot at life,” Abraham said. “I feel like a newborn baby.”
Source: Orange County Register