Saturday, May 22, 2010

Greenblatt: Should Juveniles be Charged as Adults?

Alan Greenblatt wrote and interesting article for Governing Magazine about the age that young people should be afforded responsibility for their conduct. Greenblatt looked at everything from driving to drinking alcohol. The article also explored prosecuting juveniles as adults. Below is an excerpt from Greenblatt's article, particularly as it relates to criminal behavior and punishment, "What is the Age of Responsibility?"

Some states are starting to rethink the wisdom of sending 13-year-olds to spend hard time among older, more experienced criminals. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, youths who had previously been tried as adults are 34-percent more likely to commit a crime again than those who went through the juvenile justice system. Not only do young offenders treated as adults reoffend sooner and more frequently, they're also more likely to go on to commit violent crimes.

On this matter, states are finding, nothing is more persuasive than crime data. Despite all the media attention given years ago to superpredators, the vast majority of youth crimes involve property theft and drugs and seldom involve murder. And while there are still roughly 250,000 juveniles tried each year, the rate of crime for this cohort, as measured by arrests, has gone down in each of the past 15 years.

Tough policies toward juveniles remain prevalent, but a few states have begun loosening up. In 2005, Illinois ended its policy of automatically transferring juvenile misdemeanor cases to adult courts, leaving the decision up to judges. A follow-up study found a dramatic drop in the number of cases referred to adult court, suggesting that most of the old automatic transfers had not involved serious crimes.

As of January 1, Connecticut will end its policy of treating all offenders 16 and up as adults. A similar proposal in North Carolina stalled this summer. While the latest research and crime statistics have opened up room for a fresh debate about juvenile justice, that space could evaporate at any time. There's no telling when a high-profile teen crime may catch the attention of cable news. "If we have another crime wave for whatever reason," says Shay Bilchik, of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, "it will be very difficult to resist going back to lock 'em up."

It's precisely because policy toward teens can be so random and emotionally charged that some people find the discoveries about brain development reassuring. The brain scans are putting hard science behind what anyone who has raised an adolescent knows--that young people simply aren't always capable of making good decisions.

Increasingly, this scientific evidence is being introduced in regard to juvenile justice. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the juvenile death penalty after receiving stacks of briefs summarizing the latest adolescent brain research. The justices will surely get an update on the science this fall when they hear a pair of cases from Florida meant to determine whether sentencing juveniles to life without parole constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

NOTE: The Supreme Court, since the publication of this article, struck down life in prison for juveniles who commit nonhomicide offenses, Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. ___ (2010). Justice Anthony M. Kennedy did cite the neuroscience that was addressed in Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005).

Scientists now regularly appear before legislative committees, showing pictures that make clear the developmental differences between a 16-year-old brain and that of a 25-year-old. The scans show, in the words of Temple University psychologist Laurence Steinberg, that juveniles may be "less guilty by reason of adolescence."

But while brain research is "sexy," Steinberg says, it hasn't necessarily persuaded legislators that they need to change laws regarding crime and punishment. Nor has it fundamentally changed the way policy makers view the age of responsibility in terms of when young people can drink, smoke or drive. The conclusion that 25 might be the most scientifically defensible age for any of those things is simply a nonstarter politically. Texas state Representative Jerry Madden says he's sympathetic to the argument that "the brain isn't fully developed until 25, and that's when people should be allowed to do certain things." But he says he suggested to a brain scientist who once made that case to him that "she could carry that bill--I wasn't going to."

Even scientists are cautious about leaning too hard on the neurobiology. Research linking brain structure to actual human behavior is still limited. And neuroscientists are clear about the fact that different parts of the brain mature along different timetables. In other words, executive thinking may not reach its peak until 25 but most people are capable of performing many adult functions adequately at an earlier age--probably between 16 and 21. "We're very early in the curve of finding out how the brain research should be interpreted," says Ronald Dahl, a professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh.

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