The case for treating juvenile defendants differently

On Behalf of | Nov 30, 2012 | Juvenile Crimes/Delinquency

We have long known that adolescent brains are different from adult brains, but how different? Should the structure of juveniles’ brains inform how we structure our juvenile crime laws?

One adolescent brain development researcher believes we need to do more than just lessen the penalties for juvenile offenders. “No one is saying that kids who commit horrific crimes shouldn’t be punished,” Laurence Steinberg said, “but most in the scientific community think that we know that since this person is likely to change, why not revisit this when he’s an adult and see what he’s like?”

Some of the differences he has noted between adolescent and adult brains include:

  • Adolescents have a stronger “reward seeking system” (the part of the brain that tells a person to seek out rewards and excitement), but the part of the brain that controls impulsivity is not fully developed. In fact, this “braking” part of the brain is not fully developed until the mid-20s in most people.
  • Another part of the brain that does not fully develop until the mid-20s is the prefrontal cortex, which governs behavior.
  • Adolescents are much more influenced by group behavior than adults. They take double the risks when their friends are watching them. In fact, the reward centers of the brain are much more active when friends are around than when they are acting solo.

How does this play into the criminal law context? First, it is clear that adolescents do not think in the same way as adults. The parts of their brains that control whether or not they take a risk, such as committing a crime, are not fully developed. And when they become developed, the teenager-turned-adult may make different — more ethical and legal — choices.

In fact, ninety percent of teenagers who commit a crime do not become lifelong criminals. That is an important statistic. It means that their behavior is a “function of their immaturity that is characteristic of the period and then it goes away without any intervention whatsoever,” according to Steinberg. Intervene and guide them in a different direction and most children will become productive, non-criminal adults.

Unfortunately, we often put these children in jail with other offenders and the group think grows. We place some of them in adult prison with re-offenders. Young people have even been known to “sign up” for gangs while in jail.

Steinberg asks for a different approach. “We need to go back to an earlier point in our history where we had a separate juvenile justice system that didn’t have such a porous border with the adult system,” he says.

If your child has been charged with a juvenile crime, please visit our pages on Minneapolis juvenile defense.

Source: MPR News, “6 facts about crime and the adolescent brain,” Emily Kaiser, Nov. 15, 2012