Juvenile offenders and brain development

December 15th, 2012 by Tad Nelson in Criminal Defense

Texas readers may have conflicting beliefs about the mission of the criminal justice system. Some may believe the primary purpose behind prosecuting and jailing criminals is the protection of society. Others may believe that segregating criminals from society is necessary only for violent crimes, and that imprisonment is an outdated approach to other types of offenses. Rehabilitation, or giving an offender an opportunity to conform his or her ways, is yet another, more idealistic explanation. Perhaps the system strives to accomplish all of these rationales.

However, juvenile offenders are a topic often overlooked in discussions about criminal justice reforms. One reason for the oversight may be that juvenile crimes often carry different punishments than their adult counterparts. As it turns out, there’s a scientific basis for that separate treatment, according to recent brain development research.

During adolescent, the brain goes through changes in the anatomy of the prefrontal cortex. In fact, those changes happen from pre-adolescence all the way in the mid-20s. Throughout that development, the prefrontal cortex becomes better connected and more effective in communicating with other brain regions.

Until that growth is complete, however, adolescents may exhibit opposing behaviors, almost as if they had two minds. What psychologists refer to as the reward seeking system of the brain — impulses to seek out rewards and go for novelty, excitement, and sensations — is more easily aroused during early adolescence. In contrast, the braking system of the brain, responsible for controlling such impulses, develops much more slowly, and is not fully mature until people are in their mid- to late-20s.

Brain researchers in one study used MRI to monitor the brain activity of juveniles in a driving simulation game which involved several risk-taking scenarios. When performing the test alone, many juveniles responded similarly to adults. However, when their friends were watching, almost all of the kids changed and began making riskier, perhaps more unsafe judgments.

Some psychologists think that applying adult punishments to adolescents may not make sense, especially since the kids won’t have mature brains until their 20s. Until Texas lawmakers codify this approach, however, juvenile offenders may find themselves in need of an experienced criminal attorney to defend against very adult-like, potential sentences.

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

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