Expert on teen brain growth talks juveniles and the justice system

A leading expert on brain development in adolescents says there is a very good reason why, when it comes to criminal defense and crime charges, teens should not be viewed the same way as adult offenders and receive similar sentences: They’re not adults.

It’s really that simple, says Laurence Steinberg, who works at Temple University.

“No one is saying that kids who commit horrific crimes shouldn’t be punished,” Steinberg says. What the researcher and author does contend, though, is that much about teens’ growing brains is beyond their control and changing, and that viewing teen behavior in adult terms is illogical and unfair, especially when it comes to criminal sentencing.

In fact, Steinberg says, much about what researchers now know strongly supports sentencing mitigation for youthful offenders and giving them another chance.

“We know that since this person [a youthful offender] is likely to change, why not revisit this when he’s an adult and see what he’s like?”

Steinberg’s thinking is solidly backed by a copious amount of research into adolescents’ brains. He notes that what he calls the “braking system” controlling impulses is far from fully developed in teens and reaches full maturity in most people only when they are in their 20s.

Further, studies have shown that teens favor group activity, and, unlike most adults, they change their behavior in groups, often assuming a more risk-prone approach to things. Again, that does not bode well in many instances for controlling impulses.

Steinberg voices what many people instinctively think when they believe a young person has been charged too harshly and without due thought for rehabilitation and the future. He says our criminal justice is apt “to criminalize what I think most of use consider to be, you know, stupid adolescent behavior.”

He laments what he terms the “porous border with the adult system” and strongly favors an entirely separate justice system for juveniles.

Source: MPR News, “6 facts about crime and the adolescent brain,” Emily Kaiser, Nov. 15, 2012