Mateo watched his mom and dad's abusive relationship and then began sliding into the same pattern. Newly on probation, he saw little hope.

"I thought this was my life," the 21-year-old said.

Now Mateo is part of Hennepin County's new probation program aimed at young adults, swarming them with support and guidance as they transition back into the community. The program is the first in the nation targeting 18- to 21-year-olds on probation, an age group that historically struggles with anger and impulse control.

Criminal justice advocates have long focused on how to better deal with young adults in the system, but there's been less focus on what happens once they get out.

San Francisco started a young adult court in 2015, but now Hennepin County is trying a new program based on the latest understanding of neuroscience, which shows that crucial portions of the brain regulating risk-taking and impulsive behavior are still developing even into a person's mid-20s.

"The offenses are often committed impulsively at the moment due to their brains not being fully developed," said Maria Kamenska, one of the original probation officers who helped create the new Transition Age Youth unit. "We have the feeling that you just can't lock up youths and throw away the key. Incarceration has long-term consequences for the individual and community."

The new unit, which has doubled to 10 probation officers since it was started in 2020, works as a team rather than officers supervising clients on a one-to-one basis. Officers are in constant contact with clients to work through persistent problems, such as education, employment, housing and family support issues that could lead to recidivism.

Teens and adults make up about 10% of the county's population but account for 28% of the people brought into custody, according to Hennepin County records.

More than two years ago, Julie Rud, the county's deputy director for probation, started to see resources shifting and a wider acknowledgment that what they were doing to supervise younger offenders was not working. She learned about new research in youth brain development and decided it was time "to fundamentally change the way we do business" and to be a leader in the field to focus on this population.

The previous probation concept included more scolding and required officers to act like referees instead of coaches, said Rud. There is a need for accountability, but the county wants officers to be more focused on positive outcomes, she said.

"We try to be nurturing and have relentless engagement. It's just not me saying I'm your probation officer and this is the way it's going to be," said Anthony Gardner, who started working in juvenile probation in 1997. "Sometimes they will give you the cold shoulder. But if you get by their initial defense mechanism and reach them on a personal level, you are going to get so much out of them."

It is too soon to have data on how the new initiative is working. There are about 500 people between 18 and 21 on probation in Hennepin County. The unit will let people stay with their officer until age 24. Right now, each officer handles five to 10 clients with various levels of felonies. The county will review results in five years.

The new unit reviews outside conditions that might increase chances the client will reoffend, Kamenska said. Officers work with clients in three phases: building a relationship for several months, assessing needs, and creating a support system and committing to a plan for the client to get off probation and back into the community.

Even with a relatively small number of clients so far, the county can still measure numerous successes within the new unit. Mateo, who spoke on the condition that the Star Tribune not use his full name, was involved in a domestic assault case and struggled to find stable housing. Kamenska knew he was a great cook and helped land him a job at a restaurant.

He has worked at the business for nine months, and now the owner wants him to help open a restaurant in Los Angeles or Miami.

"How we measure success is continually evolving," she said. "Initially, he was pissed off all the time and had no sense of future. But people just want to feel they are being heard."

Bruce Chan, head of the young adult court in San Francisco, said their program has been a huge success, with hopes of expanding it. But it has not been without some expected setbacks.

"There have been several people who have subsequent arrests, and for the most part we continue to work with them if they've demonstrated prior positive participation, but nothing involving violence," Chan said.

Hennepin County Commissioner Irene Fernando said the county's job is to look at the science and implement a program with the best possible outcomes, so she is strongly in favor of the new science-driven approach.

Kamenska called many of the clients some of the most brilliant, resilient and savvy people she has ever met. And she is moved by the generational traumas they are trying to overcome.

"Nobody wakes up one morning and decides they are going to rob somebody at gunpoint," she said.

When the new probation strategy is evaluated in five years, Rud is sure the data will show it to be a stunning success. When she pitched the idea, she received broad and strong support from leaders in the criminal justice system.

"I ask myself why this wasn't done 20 years ago," she said. "I'm so glad we are investing in young people."

David Chanen • 612-673-4465