Cross-Examining the Adolescent Brain

“Should young people who are accused of a crime receive the full force of laws intended for adults, given accumulating evidence that their brains are not fully matured?” This is the question that an interesting article in the health section of today’s Washington Post attempts to address. “Pitting attorney against attorney, scientist against scientist, even attorneys against scientists, that question has the potential to redraw courtroom battle lines nationwide,” staff writer Laura Sessions Stepp explains.

Representing one side of the debate in this article is Jay Giedd, a neuroscientist who runs a children’s brain-imaging project at the National Institute of Mental Health. “Brain development only tells us it is very possible that children are immature until a certain age,” he says. “We can’t conclude how mature an individual is at a given age, or how responsible for his actions. There’s some evidence, but it’s hardly overwhelming.”

Another agnostic on considering brain development as a key determinant to behavior in juvenile cases is Baruch Fischhoff, a professor of social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon University. “It’s a very incomplete picture, one of simple tasks created in highly artificial settings,” he says. “It evokes all the prejudices people have about adolescents.”

On the other side is Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University and an expert in adolescent development. Steinberg acknowledges that much of the science on adolescent brain development is “reasonable speculation,” but his research has led him to conclude that “there is a whole set of abilities that are still maturing after age 16. It has changed my mind about where the boundary should be drawn between adolescence and adulthood. Even at 21 or 22, kids are still developing competencies.”

“Under good conditions, kids can be very good decision makers,” Steinberg says. Under less-than-good conditions, however, their judgment is easily impaired–more easily, he argues, than adults. In one experiment, for example,

Steinberg asked teenagers, college students and adults to play a video driving game, either alone or with two friends watching.

The subjects were given the choice of driving through an intersection’s yellow light, potentially winning lots of points but running the risk of crashing and losing everything, or not running the light, thereby avoiding a crash but winning fewer points.

When playing alone, the teens tended to act like the grown-ups and stop at the light. When friends were observing, however, the young drivers were more likely to sail through the intersection, which suggests to Steinberg that still-developing prefrontal cortexes hadn’t fully exercised their braking power.

“Under ideal conditions, kids and adults don’t look that different,” Steinberg says. “But when you introduce distractions including other people, the distractions have more harmful effects on kids.”

I don’t pretend any scientific expertise on this subject, but I strongly believe the law should treat juveniles separately from adults, so naturally I’m sympathetic to scientific research that bolsters such arguments in court. I side with Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority decision in Roper v. Simmons, the landmark 2005 case that abolished the death penalty for juvenile offenders. “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,” Kennedy wrote. Citing scientific and sociological research, he also found reason to rule that “juveniles are more vulnerable or susceptible [than adults] to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure… This is explained in part by the prevailing circumstance that juveniles have less control, or less experience with control, over their own environment.” Continuing to allow capital punishment for young offenders after such research had become available, Kennedy concluded, would constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

This is, clearly, one of the essential debates among juvenile justice professionals right now, and as you can tell from the Post article, it’s far from settled. There is no shortage of resources for those who want to plunge in. For starters, check out the two-part (one, two) Coalition for Juvenile Justice report, published in 2006, which includes a great overview and resources for further investigation.

Other suggestions? Thoughts? Add them to the comments section below.

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