The adolescent brain: ‘A recipe for trouble’?

Part of the role of the criminal justice system is rehabilitation. It’s not all about punishment and revenge. The juvenile system is even more centered around rehabilitation than the adult criminal justice system, as our society has long recognized that juveniles are somewhat less culpable than adults and perhaps less set in their ways.

Young people are malleable and also, to a large degree, led by their impulses. They are often caught up in negative situations that are beyond their control. They may be developmentally less able to predict the consequences of their actions or resist peer pressure. Therefore, the justice system recognizes that in some situations that juveniles shouldn’t be held to an adult standard, even when they do something shocking.

Neuroscience has improved our understanding of the adolescent brain. Thanks to fMRIs and other brain scans, we have the ability to see just what the adolescent brain is doing when it makes poor decisions. This follows more than a century of behavioral research in which young people have been found to:

  • Seek out novel sensations
  • Discount the risks
  • Demonstrate poor impulse control
  • Fall prey to peer pressure

What does neuroscience tell us about youthful criminal offenses?

Thanks to neuroscience, we now know that young people – those under 25 or so – tend to make decisions using their limbic system. This is a region in the brain that is associated with sensation-seeking, emotion and rewards. The neurotransmitter dopamine is critical to affective and motivational regulation, and dopamine is rampant in the juvenile limbic system. That increased dopamine pressures adolescents to seek out new, exciting sensations and pleasurable stimuli.

Older people make their decisions using the pre-frontal cortex. This is often referred to as the “control center of the brain” and is associated with rational thought, decision-making, planning and the moderation of our social behavior.

The reason why younger people do not use their pre-frontal cortex to make decisions is that the pre-frontal cortex doesn’t fully develop until around age 25. Without a fully-developed pre-frontal cortex to moderate the high dopamine of the limbic system, adolescents are predisposed to make decisions that are less mature and reasonable.

The U.S. Supreme Court is reading the science

The U.S. Supreme Court has taken these lessons from neuroscience very seriously and has limited the degree to which juvenile offenders can be harshly punished. In Roper v. Simmons, the high court banned the death penalty for people who committed their crimes under the age of 18. It cited several neuroscientific studies when determining that the death penalty would be cruel and unusual punishment in these cases.

Then, in Graham v. Florida, the high court ruled that sentencing a juvenile offender to life in prison without the possibility of parole is cruel and unusual except in murder cases. Again, it cited neuroscience that demonstrates that the brains of juveniles are fundamentally less mature than those of adults.

In Miller v. Alabama, the high court struck down a law that required a mandatory sentence of life without parole for a juvenile offender. Sentencing a juvenile to mandatory life without parole violates the Eighth Amendment because courts must consider the differences in the adolescent brain, along with other mitigating factors, before choosing a life without parole sentence.

Neuroscience could make significant changes in our justice system

It has only been about 10 years since the initial studies on juvenile brains were completed. In that short time, it has cemented our understanding that juveniles – even those who commit shocking crimes – are less culpable than adults over 25. This understanding urges us to fight for juvenile treatment, as opposed to adult treatment in the criminal justice system. It urges us to limit the consequences of a bad act and focus on trying to rehabilitate he offender.

There is a lot more to learn. For example, neuroscience may be able to tell us more about the criminal culpability of people who have certain mental illnesses or traumatic brain injuries. Or, it could help us understand the criminal capacity of people with limited IQs or a predisposition to being aggressive.

Our understanding of justice may depend on the results of this science.

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