Feature: Second Chances

In his San Francisco courtroom, Judge Bruce Chan ’74 offers alternative paths for young adult offenders

John Teschner


Every week, a crowd of young adults assembles outside a nondescript courtroom in the San Francisco Superior Court. When the doors swing open, they file inside to stand before Judge Bruce Chan ’74. Most have been charged with felonies. The majority have faced this judge before – some many times.They know they will have to answer probing questions about their activities, their associates, and the circumstances that have brought them to court this time. One by one, young men and women take the podium and tell their stories. They tell the judge how things are going at work, what grades they’re getting in class, how often they’re visiting their therapists, and whether they’re on track to complete their wellness plans.

For most, Judge Chan offers words of praise and encouragement. For a few, he may issue a stern warning about the consequences of violating the terms of their plea agreements. This is Young Adult Court (YAC), a pioneering effort based on the latest neuroscience, showing that our brains mature in a more complicated fashion than doctors, judges, and lawmakers have long assumed. This helps explain why young adults are over-represented in the criminal justice system. In San Francisco, 18- to 25-year-olds account for 25 percent of criminal cases in the court system and make up 20 percent of the jail population. In addition, 60 percent of the probation department’s transitional-aged youth case load are African-Americans. The reasons for the racial disparity are complex, explains Judge Chan, based on a number of different historical factors. YAC gives young adults the opportunity to make amends and get back on track, instead of receiving a sentence that will forever alter their lives.

“If I had to generalize,” he says, “the main factors are a history of discriminatory practices in both public and private housing, an inadequate supply of affordable housing, which drives people to move out of San Francisco, thereby leaving behind low-income people who rely primarily on public housing, and the war on drugs, with its emphasis on enforcement instead of treatment that has resulted in the mass incarceration of African-Americans in San Francisco and other cities. The clients in YAC are the children and grandchildren of people who were subjected to imprisonment during the height of the crack cocaine epidemic. We’re trying to shift the thinking so there’s a middle ground.”

Judge Chan has overseen YAC since its inception in 2015. In his approach, he still holds youth offenders accountable, but takes into account age and brain development in making decisions on their fate. Before he sees participants in the courtroom, he sits down with the prosecutor and public defender – traditional adversaries, brought together as collaborators in this program – and a team of case managers and probation officers. They discuss each participant’s situation, often focusing on mundane logistics, such as childcare, job interviews, transportation, and other details that can be the difference between passing the program and wiping the record clean or facing jail time and a criminal record that will trail them for life.

The opportunity to participate in Young Adult Court is not offered to every person who fits the demographic. While some YAC participants face charges as serious as robbery and assault, anyone charged with a gang-related crime or one that involves serious physical harm or deadly weapons is ineligible. All who come before Judge Chan have experienced some combination of poverty, homelessness, abuse, and neglect. Many are the children of incarcerated parents; young people who’ve been dealt difficult hands from the start, and given few, if any, support systems or second chances. “Criminal courts are society’s emergency rooms,” . . . explains Judge Chan. “The young people we deal with are subjected to tremendous poverty and trauma.”

Judge Chan does not view neurology, poverty, or long-term exposure to trauma as excuses for criminal behavior. But he does believe the justice system should offer the opportunity to earn a second chance. He shares one Harvard professor’s description of an ideal environment for young adults, where they could live in a structured residential setting surrounded by supportive staff and peers encouraging them to make wise choices and allowing them to learn from their inevitable mistakes. “The punchline was that, for many people, this is called ‘college,’” Judge Chan says. Meanwhile, the young adults he sees in court are trying to make it to maturity in environments far more challenging and less forgiving. The judge’s roots are in some of these very neighborhoods. His father grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown in an era when Chinese-Americans faced significant discrimination. The elder Mr. Chan eventually founded an auto parts business, where Bruce worked each summer, alongside men and women who’d sometimes been hired, despite some rough edges or past difficulties. Judge Chan says his father “was never judgmental of people who struggled, because he saw a lot of talented people who never got anywhere” due to racism and legal discrimination.

When Judge Chan’s father decided the public elementary schools weren’t giving his children enough homework, he enrolled them first in local private schools and eventually at St. Paul’s School, on the other side of the country. After returning to California for college and law school, Judge Chan spent 15 years as a trial lawyer in the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office. Many of the people he represented reminded him of those he’d worked beside in his father’s warehouse. “You start to realize,” he says, “how the nicest, most interesting, most talented people you meet are incarcerated.” Judge Chan did not excuse the crimes his clients had committed or the harm and pain they’d caused their victims, but he could also imagine them leading very different lives if they had grown up with different opportunities and contexts. “It’s a lot of wasted potential,” he says.

Judge Chan has overseen YAC since its inception in 2015. PHOTO | Robert Gumpert

Judge Chan has overseen YAC since its inception in 2015. PHOTO | Robert Gumpert

As a public defender in the 1980s and 1990s, Judge Chan had a firsthand view of how criminal justice policies played an outsized role in people’s fate. He saw a cycle in which undercover police teams would target low-level crack dealers for twenty-dollar drug busts. Because they were addicts, many would be re-arrested for additional drug crimes before they completed their long probation periods. Many of Judge Chan’s clients ended up serving time in a prison system that was expanding at a record rate. The effects of mass incarceration were multi-generational. As a judge, it was not uncommon for Chan to encounter the children and grandchildren of old clients from his days as a public defender. Judge Chan also saw clients break this cycle, often because someone in the system decided to give them a chance. He was particularly struck by a client named Debra, who was addicted to heroin and had a record of drug possession, prostitution, and petty theft. After she violated probation, then Public Defender Chan convinced the judge to offer drug treatment as an alternative to jail time. Debra had to make the choice between a short prison term and a return to a familiar way of life, or a year or more of residential treatment with only a question mark at the end of it. Debra chose treatment. After two years, she graduated and became a counselor, helping other women recover. For Judge Chan, it was a stark reminder that his clients had the potential to change their lives. He promised himself that if he ever became a judge, he would remember this lesson.

Chan earned his judge’s robes in 2009, around the same time neurologists had begun to re-evaluate a long-held assumption that the human brain reached full maturity by the end of the teen years, the age of legal adulthood. One breakthrough came when a researcher at Temple University administered tests that broke mental maturity into a set of distinctly different capabilities. He found that, while younger and older adults had the same cognitive capacity to solve equations and other logic challenges, they had starkly different levels of emotional maturity, especially in areas such as risk-taking and response to peer pressure. Eventually researchers pinpointed the exact region that was slowest to develop – the pre-frontal cortex, the area responsible for controlling impulsive behavior.

The prevailing model of brain development had been upended. What for decades had been seen as a monolithic progression with clear benchmarks was now understood to be multiple processes occurring along very different timelines. And many of the latest-blooming traits governed exactly the types of decisions that kept landing young people in criminal court. Judge Chan took note of these developments. They fit not only what he saw in his courtroom (young adults account for 10 percent of the U.S. population, but 28 percent of all arrests) but also in the everyday life of friends and family members who’d never had a run-in with the law. “The neuroscience confirms what any parent of a teenager or young adult knows in his or her heart,” he says, “your son or daughter may be legally able to cast a ballot, carry a rifle in the armed forces, drive a car, drink in a bar, or get inked in a tattoo parlor, but they are not adults.”

Judge Chan observed a profound disjunction between the opportunities presented to the young adults in his personal and professional lives. While teenagers from well-off families could usually transition to adulthood within a strong support system and with the full resources of a college campus, those he met in court were often left to their own devices in some of the most challenging and unforgiving environments imaginable. Their mistakes and bad judgments were punished more harshly, and once they had entered the criminal justice system, their lives were often changed forever. Out of every 10 young adults released from prison, eight are rearrested within five years. In 2015, a rare coalition of San Francisco agencies, including the Superior Court, District Attorney, Public Defender, Department of Public Health, Adult Probation Department, and S.F.P.D., proposed the Young Adult Court, the first of its kind in the U.S. Judge Chan leapt at the opportunity to serve as presiding judge. It was an effort, he says, “to deal with their underlying issue rather than just cycle them through jail and prison and courts.” A chance “to take something I think has been crooked for a long time and try to straighten it out.”

To be eligible for YAC, an offender must be 18 to 25 and deemed to have life experiences that contributed to their involvement with a crime. The defense and the District Attorney agree on a deal to dismiss or reduce felony charges if the participant successfully completes all milestones on his or her Wellness Plan, which can include clinical case management; individual, group, or family counseling; behavior therapy; drug monitoring; and referrals for substance abuse treatment, housing, parenting, and connections to academic and vocational support. Participation usually lasts 12 to 18 months, and participants must regularly report to Judge Chan about their progress. “It didn’t feel like court,” one participant explained. “It felt like a support system – they were asking where you were, making sure you’re going where you want to go.”

About 70 young adults have participated in YAC each year. The court recently secured funding to expand its capacity to 120 clients annually. The standards are stringent and expectations high. While all participants are given resources to help them succeed, only about 40 percent successfully complete the program. Alicia was one of those participants. Like many of the people who appear before Judge Chan, her mother was swept up in the war on drugs and incarcerated multiple times when Alicia was a child. Her father was completely absent, and other members of her family were imprisoned for crimes ranging from domestic violence to murder. Alicia and her five brothers, including her twin, were scattered across Northern California in separate foster homes until each of them turned 18. When she was 21, Alicia was arrested for burglary. Her lawyer worked with the District Attorney, and Alicia – a single mother – was offered the opportunity to participate in Young Adult Court. YAC gave Alicia the opportunity to move out of her family’s apartment in a public housing complex known for gun violence and find subsidized housing for herself and her daughter in a safer neighborhood. She completed an apprenticeship program with the local ironworkers union and is now a welder working large construction projects across the city.

As YAC produces more and more successful graduates like Alicia, the criminal justice systems in other cities – and other countries – are taking notice. There are now at least eight young adult courts in the U.S. and five opening in the U.K. Reflecting on the influence of his time at St. Paul’s, Judge Chan sees a convergence between two very different starting points; an old-line Episcopalian ethos of service to others and his father’s hard-knocks upbringing in Chinatown, which taught him that no one becomes a success without a little luck and the kindness of others. To make his point, Judge Chan recites the School Prayer from memory.

St Paul's School