Research on brain development can help explain the biological basis of
differences between adolescents and adults, persuade lay people that the
differences are real, and promote the need for different laws for juvenile
offenders, said Thomas Grisso, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and
coordinator of the Law and Psychiatry Program at the University of
Massachusetts Medical School.
The Coalition for Juvenile Justice met as several federal programs
(including the Juvenile Accountability Block Grants and the Edward Byrne
Memorial State and Local Law Enforcement Assistance Program) that support
services to these adolescents face budget cuts of 35 percent to 43 percent in
the Fiscal 2007 federal budget, and as the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency
Prevention Act comes up for reauthorization next year.
The intersection of brain development and juvenile justice has become more
prominent since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year in Roper v.
Simmons that adolescents are not eligible for the death penalty for
crimes committed under age 18.
"Roper is important, but it's very much a beginning,"
said Marsha Levick, J.D., legal director of the Juvenile Law Center in
Philadelphia. "The real question is how to treat offenders under 18,
hold them responsible, and decide whether they should be assigned to the
juvenile or adult systems."
Coalition members heard how recent neuroimaging research can help support
policy and legislation affecting juvenile offenders, a population termed"
too young to vote, too poor to lobby, and usually awfully hard to
love" by New Jersey Superior Court Judge B. Thomas Leahy, who was given
the A.L. Carlisle Child Advocacy Award at the meeting.
Adolescent behavior derives mainly from two parts of the brain, Grisso
explained. Socioemotional control is governed by the limbic system while the
frontal lobe exercises cognitive control. The prefrontal cortex governs
impulse and future orientation. Adolescence, which is distinct from puberty,
is the transition from youth to adulthood and the last period of major neural
change and development. Maturation of the prefrontal cortex results in greater
ability to inhibit responses and increased capacity for complex thought and
During the transition, however, adolescents are more compulsive, more
easily swayed by peer influences and short-term gratification, and more
inclined to take risks. Gaining the behavioral control of which adults are
capable may happen with time (usually by the late teens), but these categories
change at different rates and at different times in each child's life.
"We have to remind the courts that adolescents are not adults,"
said Levick, explaining why the juvenile justice system was created 100 years
Young people who end up in that system often exhibit a common series of
risk factors, said Marilyn Benoit, M.D., a clinical professor of psychiatry at
Georgetown University. For a start, there are higher rates of learning
problems among this group, leading to difficulties in perception,
interpretation, and processing. Higher rates of head trauma may also
contribute to teens' cognitive impairments.
Further, abandonment by one or both parents, compounded by a string of
foster parents, may have caused attachment failures and related
However, neuroimaging and other biological research alone cannot determine
an adolescent's criminal responsibility, said Grisso. At present, it can say
only what happens on average. Adolescents vary in their cognitive and
behavioral development and their ability to see the consequences of their
acts, so the juvenile justice system must assess and treat adolescents
"Brain research can't tell us where to draw a line," said
Grisso. "It does not explain an individual youth's behavior, and
behavior matters under the law."
Juveniles cannot, however, simply blame their actions on their
underdeveloped brains and walk away from a crime, he stated.
"It's not about saying they're not responsible, or that adolescents
don't know right from wrong, or that they should not be held accountable for
their actions," he said. "In fact, it's poor parenting not to hold
them responsible. The difference is how we hold them responsible."
Policies based on research about brain development in adolescents affect
not only the question of culpability but also competence to stand trial,
To be considered competent, a youth must recognize the roles of the trial
participants such as the defense and prosecuting attorneys and know what is
relevant to the trial and his or her part in it.
For instance, a youngster faced with a plea bargain offering two years in
jail versus a possible six-year sentence if he went to trial and lost might
opt for the two years. An adult defendant, rather than go with that simplistic
calculation, might wrestle more extensively with the chances of going to trial
and the odds of a guilty verdict.
Nevertheless, "developmental and brain research is critical. A
defense attorney who doesn't use it is committing malpractice," Levick
Some states still enable prosecutors to transfer defendants younger than 18
to the adult criminal justice system without possibility of review, she said.
Adolescents grow and mature at different rates. Age younger than 18 was the
criterion for execution exemption that the justices established in
Roper, but the brain continues to develop up to age 22. She urged
coalition members to advocate for making 18 an across-the-board division
between the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems.
Benoit offered four suggestions for helping adolescents at risk for or
already involved in the juvenile justice system, beginning with safety.
Also, "focus on the positive, not the pathological," she said."
Start small, with anything the child can do well, and build from there.
Too often, social service or juvenile justice systems simply repeat the same
patterns that have already disrupted the child's life. Offer them consistency
and predictability in family and therapeutic relationships and help them find
secondary relationships that endure."
More information on juvenile justice issues is posted at<www.juvjustice.org/>.▪