The Frontal Lobe Defense

This interesting AP report looks at current scientific research on adolescent brain development and explores the implications for those involved with juvenile justice issues.

The central source is Laurence Steinberg, a Temple University psychology professor, who helped draft an American Psychological Association brief in Roper v. Simmons and who has consulted with state legislators on juvenile justice policy. Steinberg says he’s not sure how much of an impact scientific research has had on legislators, who seem motivated primarily by cost. But surely it made a difference to Justice Kennedy, who wrote in his opinion on Roper,

Three general differences between juveniles under 18 and adults demonstrate that juvenile offenders cannot with reliability be classified among the worst offenders. First, as any parent knows and as the scientific and sociological studies respondent and his amici cite tend to confirm, “[a] lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility are found in youth more often than in adults and are more understandable among the young. These qualities often result in impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions….

The reality that juveniles still struggle to define their identity means it is less supportable to conclude that even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile is evidence of irretrievably depraved character. From a moral standpoint it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor’s character deficiencies will be reformed….

The differences between juvenile and adult offenders are too marked and well understood to risk allowing a youthful person to receive the death penalty.

Stated so eloquently and handed down from the highest court of the land, such an argument not only bears the ring of truth but begins to sound like common sense–as, indeed, it is. Juveniles are not adults, and when they break the law they should not be held accountable for their crimes or punished in the same manner as adults. Simple as that. Now, why is it so hard to persuade our legislators to put this common-sense, scientifically proven fact at the heart of their juvenile justice policies?


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