In Orange County, Young Adult Court offers a path to clear felony convictions

A judge and two people in a courtroom
Thomas, left, was convicted of robbery when he was 19. As of Friday, his felony conviction was removed from his record.

For three young men, Friday marked the beginning of a new chapter of their lives — this one free from the felonies they were convicted of.

The Orange County Young Adult Court, a collaborative program for first-time nonviolent felony offenders between the ages of 18 and 23, graduated three of its initial 25 participants with tearful goodbyes as Orange County Superior Court Judge Maria Hernandez reduced or dismissed their convictions.

Hernandez said she wished everyone who had a hand in the cases could be present in person, but current restrictions forbid it as COVID-19 cases continue to surge in Orange County.

The first graduate of the program finished in July.

“For today, we are making sure that we don’t stop a graduation because of a pandemic,” Hernandez said.

Participants and program staff watched the ceremony through Zoom, cheering as the three young men thanked the program and their friends and families.


“I got into Young Adult Court when I was 19 because of the mistakes I made,” said Thomas, one of the graduates, who asked that his last name be withheld. “I committed a robbery, and without this court I would be facing nine years in jail.”

“I apologize to the people I hurt in the process of my wrongdoings. This court has helped me — a Black man — have a second chance at life instead of throwing me into jail. I was given an opportunity to redeem myself,” Thomas said. “Now, I have a job in dermatology and plastic surgery and I make good money. I was able to buy a car and have the opportunity for more growth.”

The two-year program, launched in August 2018, offers randomly selected first-time felony offenders support services and resources for mental health counseling, job skills training, substance abuse treatment and housing and transportation assistance. Those chosen were not convicted of crimes involving bodily injury or weapons.

Three people pose in a courtroom with a framed certificate
Thomas, center, who completed the program, with Elizabeth Cauffman, left, a professor of psychological science at UC Irvine, and Orange County Superior Court Judge Maria Hernandez.

Elizabeth Cauffman, a professor of psychological science at UC Irvine who helped launch the program, said it is tailored to individuals and their specific needs, whether it be continuing education or getting a job.

“It’s really meeting them where they’re at and finding the goals that they need to meet and helping them reach those goals,” Cauffman said.

The minimum time spent in the program is 18 months.

If participants meet all their requirements, which include attending all court hearings and meetings with probation officers and case managers, they can complete the program and become eligible to have their felonies dismissed or reduced to misdemeanors.

The program was launched under the direction of Hernandez; Cauffman; Cauffman’s former postdoctoral student, Zachary Rowan, who now is a faculty member at Simon Fraser University in Canada; Cauffman’s current post-doctoral student, Grace Icenogle; the Orange County Probation Department; the Orange County Public Defender and Defense Bar; the Orange County district attorney’s office; and the Orangewood Foundation.

Cauffman and her team, with a $780,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice, are studying the program. The Community Action Partnership of Orange County will also contribute $749,000 for the next year to support the court and the research.

Cauffman, a developmental psychologist, said the program targets young people because they are an age group that sees the most delinquent behavior and has the biggest costs involved with it.

“What they did when they were 20 — when they’re 30, 40, 50 — they’re going to be wearing this felony for the rest of their lives,” Cauffman said. “We tell everybody to be good and then they get out, and they don’t have these opportunities. This really hits the developmental time when they’re the highest risk and have the greatest opportunity for change.”

“It’s about getting people second chances at a time where we’re looking for social justice,” Cauffman continued. “This is social justice — accountable, developmentally appropriate ways and providing both the community the safety, and the person the opportunity to become productive members of our society.”

“Everybody’s being held accountable, but in a way that I think everyone wants them to. We want people back in our communities being productive and engaged,” she said.

One of the graduates, who asked for his name to be withheld, said that he came to the court when he was 21, and that he was “dumb,” not realizing at the time how his actions hurt others. He said he has since realized his mistakes.

“If someone like me — someone who was always committing crimes and trying to hang out with friends and impress them — can become the person I am today, you guys can do it, too,” he said, addressing other program participants over Zoom. “I mean, what more do you guys want? The Young Adult Court makes it easy for us to change. All you guys have to do is accept the help from everyone here in this program. Getting your felony dismissed should be more than enough motivation for you guys to want to change.”

“Take the help they give us,” he said.

Thomas agreed.

“Keep believing in us,” Thomas said. “I believe second chances are deserved, and if I can do it, you can do it too.”

Nguyen writes for Times Community News.