By Kenny Choi

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — The approach to tackling crime is polarizing. Some believe in the Three Strikes Law and the lock-and-key strategy. Others say that method hasn’t worked for decades.

San Francisco’s unique Young Adult Court takes a different approach. It’s based on the premise that an 18-to-24 year old criminal suspect doesn’t fit into juvenile nor adult court.

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The program’s ultimate goal is to intercede and help before it’s too late.

“I was lost, roaming the streets, no career no future no nothing,” said Young Adult Court graduate Maria.

Just 3 years ago, Maria was facing the possibility of being sent to prison at the age of 23.

“With the crime I was charged with anyone would look at my resume and say we don’t want to pick this girl up,” said Maria.

Growing up in the notorious Sunnydale Housing Project in San Francisco, she dropped out of school early on and started stumbling down the criminal path.

“Some scientists have said that 18-to-24 year-old are kind of like cars fully formed with all the component parts, but sometimes in a stressful situation, the brakes don’t work,” said Young Adult Court Judge Bruce Chan.

The developing brain of a potential life-long criminal who’s older than 18, but not quite an adult, some believe, has to be handled differently within the criminal justice system.

Chan is at the helm of a first of its kind courtroom in the country still in its infancy and is a hybrid between juvenile and adult court.

“I’d say the vast majority (of youths in the program) are low income, a high percentage have been in the foster care system because they were neglected or abused as children,” said Chan.

Nearly all cases involving deadly weapons, serious bodily harm and gang activity are disqualified from participating in the program.

Each year, more than 60 participants are referred by the Public Defender’s Office, adult probation, private counsel and the District Attorney’s office.

“We always look at the individual charges and allegations in each case, and that’s because public safety is our priority,” said San Francisco Assistant District Attorney Azita Ghafourpour.

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As part of the program, each participant comes to the Hall of Justice Young Adult Court at least once a week and it typically takes about a year to year-and-a-half to fulfill all the requirements.

“It’s an incredibly stringent program that requires a lot of work,” said San Francisco Deputy Public Defender Andrea Lindsay.

The young offenders in the program also attend educational and therapeutic sessions and meet with case managers every week.

“All the time I’d be like I’m not going to court, not calling in, I’m 23 I don’t need to be reporting to nobody,” said Maria.

“Make no mistake we hold people accountable,” said Chan.

In return, a potential felony conviction that can permanently derail employment opportunities is avoided.

Lindsay has represented some of the 130 participants who have completed the program since it launched in 2015.

“These aren’t young kids whose lives should be put away in prison,” she said.

Incarceration figures show more than 2.3 million people are in prison. The young adult demographic 18-to-24 is disproportionately represented and also has some of the highest rates of behavioral health disorders.

Life is dramatically different these days for Maria as well, working at a food distribution center in the Mission, something that was not too long ago impossible.

“The tears come out because if it weren’t for them I’d be on the streets,” said Maria. “If it didn’t break me it made me. I could say it’s made me and making me into who I am.”

The latest data from Young Adult Court shows 73% of graduates have avoided being re-arrested in San Francisco county, but it’s unclear what that number would be if other counties were included.

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Those affiliated with the program hope to collect more data regarding recidivism and re-arrests in the future as more people graduate.