The Charger Blog

Former Prosecutor Leading Conversation on Reimagining Criminal Justice System for 'Emerging Adults'

Professor Mike Lawlor is part of a national group working to change the way 18- to 25-year olds are treated in the criminal justice system, and he hopes to create a clinical program that University of New Haven students can be a part of.

August 12, 2019

By Jackie Hennessey, contributing writer

Image of Emerging Adults and Justice Reform Summit
Mike Lawlor, J.D., (far right) with fellow attendees to this year's Emerging Adults and Justice Reform Summit.

Mike Lawlor, J.D., an associate professor of criminal justice and expert on criminal justice reform, wants you to imagine for a minute that that you are 18, 20, or 25 years old, and you get arrested for a crime – a misdemeanor or a felony.

"Just getting arrested creates this electronic paper trail you can never shake under the current system," he says. "It's public record. Your name can be in the paper. Even if you go to court and the charges are dismissed, it's a Google search away from a future employer, landlord, college admission officer, or even a roommate or romantic relationship, and it can completely derail your life.

"This is a phenomenon that is especially concentrated on people of color, and there's been a lot of discussion around that," continues Professor Lawlor.

Consider, too, that if you are 18 to 25 and you spend even a few days in prison, statistically, the likelihood of committing other crimes, of not finding work, and returning to prison increases exponentially.

But, Professor Lawlor notes, if people aren't involved in the prison system by the time they are 25, the likelihood of going to prison for the first time at 26, 27, or beyond is almost nil.

"This is a phenomenon that is especially concentrated on people of color, and there's been a lot of discussion around that."Mike Lawlor, J.D.

At the forefront of reducing crime

Professor Lawlor has dedicated much of his career working to reduce crime. A former prosecutor, he later served for 24 years as a state legislator, leading criminal justice reform. Most recently, he was undersecretary for criminal justice policy and planning for former Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy.

During his eight-year tenure, he developed and implemented initiatives – including juvenile justice, bail, and drug policy reforms – that helped lead to a 41 percent decrease in arrests in the state from 2009-2017, a 65 percent reduction in juvenile crime, and a marked decline in the state's prison population – from 20,000 in 2008 to 13,000 last year.

He takes the greatest pride in the fact that Connecticut has experienced the biggest decline in reported violent crime of any state in the nation over the last four years. Earlier this summer, Professor Lawlor shared his experience and expertise during a series of events he participated in Boston and New York City as part of this year's Emerging Adults and Justice Reform Summit, an international conference hosted by the Emerging Adult Justice Project at Columbia University's Justice Lab that brought together leaders from across the globe to focuses on issues related to 18-to 25-year olds involved in the criminal justice system.

As part of the program, Professor Lawlor and his counterparts had the opportunity to meet with juvenile justice officials from Germany and Croatia who spoke about the philosophy behind their juvenile justice systems, which include people to age 21, and their approach to preventing young people from getting into or returning to the prison system and addressing issues like substance abuse, mental health, homelessness, and education.

Their comments echoed what Professor Lawlor discovered several years ago when he was invited to visit German prisons, and the prison guards and other personnel told him their primary mission was to help the emerging adult prisoners who have committed crimes to become successful in the next chapters of their lives.

"Here in the U.S., the priority seems to be about holding people accountable rather than enacting evidence-based practices that reduce recidivism," Professor Lawlor says.

"Here in the U.S., the priority seems to be about holding people accountable rather than enacting evidence-based practices that reduce recidivism."Mike Lawlor, J.D.

'So much momentum for change'

As part of the summit this summer, he also toured a juvenile jail for people to age 20, where the staff is specially trained on helping the whole person – with education, with housing, and with mental health and substance abuse care.

This fall, Professor Lawlor will discuss emerging adults and justice reform in his Criminal Justice Policy course, and he and his students will visit juvenile detention centers and prisons to talk with inmates and prison personnel.

He also is developing a clinical program on emerging adult justice, and he is hoping to involve Lee College forensic science students in a project he worked on while a member of Governor Malloy's administration: making sure when people violate parole, they're given a fair hearing with attorney representation.

He hopes to match Lee College students who "are really good at investigatory methods and forensic sciences" with students at a Connecticut law school.

Professor Lawlor is quick to point out that emerging adults who commit the most serious crimes would still be convicted as adults, including adult probation and prison sentences.

His focus, though, is on the vast majority of crimes committed by this population that are not serious violent offenses. He said more than 85 percent of emerging adults arrested in Connecticut never serve a single day of prison or jail time. Charges are frequently dropped by prosecutors early on in many cases. Others result in dismissal following a diversionary program or probation. Still, in all cases, their arrest is public information that can follow them for life.

"There's so much momentum for change," he says. "It's not partisan, and it's happening around the country.

"We are asking 'How do we find ways for younger adults 18 to 21, or under 25, find success if they've started down the wrong road?'" he continues. "How can we help prosecutors sort out offenders and come up with sanctions that are appropriate? Whether it's to reduce crime, to reduce prison populations, to reduce costs…people are seeing that this makes so much sense."

"There's so much momentum for change, it's not partisan, and it's happening around the country.."Mike Lawlor, J.D.