Christopher Uggen and Sara Wakefield. “Young Adults Reentering the Community from the Criminal Justice System: Challenges to Adulthood.” [Chapter submitted for consideration in On Your Own Without a Net: The Transition to Adulthood for Vulnerable Populations, edited by D. Wayne Osgood and Mike Foster 1/8/03]. [Under Review].




If the transition to adulthood has become more variable and more difficult for the general population, what are the difficulties faced by adults who spend their late teens and early twenties in prison or under correctional supervision? In this chapter we consider the vulnerability and resilience of young adults who return to the community from the criminal justice system across various domains of adjustment, including work, family, civic life, mental health, and substance use. Can people “grow up” in prison? Are correctional facilities and detention centers necessarily “holding pens” in which no development can take place, or do they have the potential to help their clients assume stable adult roles? We situate these questions within research on crime over the life course and an emerging literature on barriers to the assumption of adult roles after prison. The chapter first sketches the criminal justice system that defines this group. We then consider some life course concepts and theories to help guide our discussion of the transition to adulthood for ex-prisoners, juxtaposing life course theory with descriptive data on the status of state prison inmates aged 18-25 in the United States. The abstract theories provide the basis for the next section detailing the consequences of punishment across different domains of adjustment in the transition to adulthood. Finally, we consider social context and variations across space and time in crime, punishment, and the transition to adulthood.