Crime and the Adolescent Brain

“When the Supreme Court banned capital punishment for crimes that were committed when a defendant was under the age of 18, it ruled that “standards of decency” had evolved to recognize that a juvenile’s “lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility” distinguished his crimes from those of an adult.

The 2005 ruling, in Roper v. Simmons, was based partly on common sense and partly on research showing that the brain is still developing during adolescence, making young people especially vulnerable to impulsive behaviors.

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Over the last decade, seven states — Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire and South Carolina — have passed laws that channel most young offenders into juvenile courts, where they can receive counseling and support, instead of into adult courts and adult prisons, which are not equipped to deal with adolescents.

This wise approach has bypassed New York, which is one of only two states — the other being North Carolina — that automatically try 16-year-olds as adults. While New York lawmakers fear that raising the age for adult courts would make them seem “soft on crime,” some state legislatures are now considering proposals to raise the age to 21.

Connecticut’s experience is instructive. In 2007, it raised the age of adult prosecution from 16 to 18 as part of a package of criminal justice reforms. It moved most nonviolent infractions — things like shoplifting, drug possession and disorderly conduct — out of the formal court system and invested in counseling and intervention programs that allowed teenagers to avoid criminal records.

A 2016 report by the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School found that raising the age for adult prosecution produced sharp reductions in arrests, court caseloads and incarceration costs. Sixteen-year-olds who are tried as juveniles are less likely to be rearrested than those tried as adults. And arrests for people under 18 dropped by an astonishing 68 percent while the crime rate has continued to decline. Among other things, this research shows that most of the adolescent arrests that have traditionally been made by the police do not prevent future criminal behavior.

Encouraged by these results, Gov. Dannel Malloy of Connecticut has introduced a bill that would include 18- to 20-year-olds who commit all but the most serious crimes under a new category, “young adult” offenders. Offenders in this category would be subject to juvenile court rules. Such a system would allow many young adults who are being automatically sent to adult courts to have their cases handled informally, outside the court process. Both Massachusetts and Illinois are also considering bills that would channel most 18-, 19- and 20-year-old offenders into the juvenile system.

Setting the age for adult criminal responsibility at 16, as New York does, is inhumane. New York’s record on this is doubly shameful because state lawmakers in 1962 settled on 16 temporarily when they could not agree on a definition of adulthood. The Legislature promised to revisit the issue, but inertia set in. Generations of young offenders were damaged, some irreparably, by this decision. Surely, it’s time to correct this mistake.

Original Link (NY Times): https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/11/opinion/sunday/crime-and-the-adolescent-brain.html?ref=opinion&_r=0