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Legal News
Imaging Studies Guide Policy On Crime and Punishment
Psychiatric News
Volume 41 Number 11 page 8-11

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 behavioral control.

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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 ago.

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 difficulties.

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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 individually.

"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, Grisso explained.

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 suggested.

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/>.

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