Kids are different. The way that adolescents behave, solve problems, and make decisions differs markedly from that of adults. Research has shown that there is a biological explanation for this. The amygdala is a specific region of the brain that is responsible for immediate reactions, such as fear and aggressive behavior. This region develops early in life. However, the frontal cortex, which is responsible for reasoning, progresses in the later stages of human development. The frontal cortex is still changing and maturing well into adulthood.
Brain imaging shows that the brains of adolescents work differently, particularly when they make decisions or solve problems. Adolescents’ actions are guided more by the emotional and reactive amygdala and less by the reasonable frontal cortex. Drug and alcohol during adolescence can also inhibit these developments.
A number of developmental difference exist between adolescents and adults, depending on the stage of brain development. Adolescents are more likely to act impulsively and/or aggressively. They are also more likely to misinterpret social cues or emotions expressed by other individuals. Additionally, adolescent have more difficulty in thinking before they act and in adequately weight the consequences of their actions. As a result, they are more likely to engage in risky or dangerous behavior.
These brain differences do not mean that adolescents are incapable of making good decisions; it just means that it is harder for them. Adolescents should not be held to the same standards as adults because they cannot always think about their actions in the way a typical adult would. That is why the juvenile justice system has and needs to continue to adapt in the area of brain science, juvenile decision-making, and adolescent development so that juveniles are punished appropriately when they do make a bad decision that leads to arrest.
“Minor is Major: How Adolescent Braind and Behavior Development Can Affect Competency, Culpability and Other Determinations in Criminal Court” by Cathryn S. Crawford, NACDL 2016 Mid-Winter Meeting. Download the presentation.
“Brain Science and the Theory of Juvenile Mens Rea“ by Jenny E. Carroll, North Carolina Law Review (2016)
Abstract: The law has long recognized the distinction between adults and children. A legally designated age determines who can vote, exercise reproductive rights, voluntarily discontinue their education, buy alcohol or tobacco, marry, drive a car, or obtain a tattoo. The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld such age-based restrictions, most recently constructing an Eighth Amendment jurisprudence that bars the application of certain penalties to juvenile offenders and a Fourth Amendment jurisprudence that contemplates an adolescent-based standard of reasonableness for the Miranda v. Arizona custody analysis. In the cases of Roper v. Simmons, Graham v. Florida, Miller v. Alabama, and J.D.B. v. North Carolina, the Court’s jurisprudence of youth relies on emerging neuroscience to confirm what the parents of any teenager have long suspected: adolescents’ cognitive abilities and thought processes differ from their adult counterparts. Children are different than adults.
In the cases of Roper, Graham, and Miller, the Court recognized that brain development affects the legal construct of culpability and should accordingly affect punishment. In the Roper case line, the Court reasoned that without mature thought processes and cognitive abilities, adolescents as a class fail to achieve the requisite level of culpability demonstrated in adult offenders. As such, juveniles were categorically spared the death penalty and, in some instances, a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Likewise, in J.D.B., the Court concluded that the reasonableness of a juvenile defendant’s perception of custody under Miranda v. Arizona must be age appropriate. The Court concluded that as a class adolescents had a different understanding of custodial status than adults. Courts contemplating the validity of a perception of custody under Miranda had to account for this difference in their analysis.
To date, the Court has limited the application of this principle to punishment and consent analysis under Miranda. The logic of the Court’s decisions, however, applies just as strongly to the application of substantive criminal law. Likewise, scholars writing in the field have limited the application of neuroscience to either the territory staked out by the Court or to objective mens rea standards alone. The science, however, does not support such limitations. Just as modern neuroscience counsels against the imposition of certain penalties on juvenile offenders and an adjustment of Miranda’s reasonableness analysis, so it counsels toward a reconsideration of culpability as applied to juvenile offenders through the element of mens rea. The failure to extend this jurisprudence of youth to every mental state element undermines the very role of mens rea as a mechanism to determine guilt. Read the full article.
“Accepting Miller ’s Invitation: Conducting a Capital-Style Mitigation Investigation in Juvenile- Life-Without-Parole Cases” by Betsy Wilson and Amanda Myers, The Champion (2014)
In this article, the authors discuss how to conduct a capital-style mitigation investigation in juvenile life-without-parole cases, especially in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama. Read the full article.
“Less Guilty by Reason of Adolescence Developmental Immaturity, Diminished Responsibility, and the Juvenile Death Penalty” by Laurence Steinberg and Elizabeth S. Scott, American Psychologist (2003)
Abstract: The authors use a developmental perspective to examine questions about the criminal culpability of juveniles and the juvenile death penalty. Under principles of criminal law, culpability is mitigated when the actor’s decisionmaking capacity is diminished, when the criminal act was coerced, or when the act was out of character. The authors argue that juveniles should not be held to the same standards of criminal responsibility as adults, because adolescents’ decision-making capacity is diminished, they are less able to resist coercive influence, and their character is still undergoing change. The uniqueness of immaturity as a mitigating condition argues for a commitment to a legal environment under which most youths are dealt with in a separate justice system and none are eligible for capital punishment. Read the full article.
“The Legal Construction of Adolescence” by Elizabeth S. Scott, Hofstra Law Review (2000)
Abstract: Two features of the legal regulation of childhood seem troublesome, but ultimately contribute to sensible policies in most contexts. First, the boundary between childhood and adulthood varies in different policy domains, through a regime of age grading under which elementary school students are deemed adults for some legal purposes, while, for other purposes, college students are children. Second, the transitional stage of adolescence is virtually invisible, because, for most purposes, law makers employ binary categories, classifying adolescents as either children or as adults. This framework—a series of legislative bright line rules, arrayed around a presumptive age of majority—generally promotes social welfare as well as the interests of youth. Although this approach sometimes distorts developmental reality, it accomplishes the transition from legal childhood to adulthood over time without incurring the costs associated with the creation of intermediate legal category. Indeed, the unsuccessful experience with abortion regulation (in which adolescents occupy a special category) confirms the benefits of binary classification.
In the context of juvenile justice policy, however, categorical assumptions that ignore the developmental stage of adolescence have harmful outcomes. In responding to youth crime, law makers have shifted the boundary of childhood dramatically during the 20th century. The Progressive architects of the traditional juvenile court described delinquent youths as innocent children, and constructed policies that presumed that the state’s sole purpose was to promote their welfare. Contemporary conservatives, in contrast, assume that young offenders are indistinguishable from adult criminals, and argue that public protection demands that they be subject to the same punishment. I argue that both of these accounts represent distortions and have been the basis of unsatisfactory policies – even in terms of the professed objectives oftheir adherents. A justice policy that treats adolescence as a distinct legal category not only will promote youth welfare, but will also advance the utilitarian objectives of reducing the costs of youth crime. Read the full article.
“Maturity of Judgment in Adolescence: Psychosocial Factors in Adolescent Decision Making” by Laurence Steinberg and Elizabeth Cauffman, Law and Human Behavior (1996)
Abstract: To date, analyses of differences between adolescents’ and adults’ judgment have emphasized age differences in cognitive factors presumed to affect decision making. In contrast, this article examines research and theory on three psychosocial aspects of maturity of judgment: responsibility, temperance, and perspective. For several psychosocial dimensions of maturity that are likely to affect judgment, the existing evidence, while indirect and imperfect, indicates that the greatest differences are found in comparisons between early adolescents versus middle and late adolescents. Developmental research on maturity that focuses specifically on mid- and late adolescence, that simultaneously examines both cognitive and noncognitive factors, and that investigates the relation. Purchase access to the full article.
“Evaluating Adolescent Decision Making in Legal Contexts” by Elizabeth S. Scott, N. Dickon Reppucci, and Jennifer L. Woolard, Law and Human Behavior (1995)
Abstract: Challenges the use by policy researchers of a model for comparing adolescent and adult decision making that is based on informed consent standards. An expanded decision-making framework designed to evaluate “judgment” in adults and adolescents can better test the empirical basis of paternalistic legal policies. The theoretical and empirical literature on the informed consent framework is critiqued and an alternative framework incorporating judgment factors is proposed. Three judgment factors—temporal perspective, attitude toward risk, and peer and parental influence—and their effects on decision making are explored. Finally, implications for future research are analyzed in several decision-making contexts. Read the full article.