Juvenile Justice and Brain Development

A Sunday front page headline screams, “THROWING AWAY THE KEY ON TEEN OFFENDERS: DEBATE SWIRLS ON TREATING JUVENILES AS ADULTS IN VA. IS THE STATE GOING TOO FAR?” detailing stories of teens sentenced to decades of prison time for their various crimes. “More than 400 juveniles went to prison in Virginia from 2005 through 2009, according to the Department of Corrections.”

The story cites Dr. Steven Berkowitz, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, who describes the transition from the rehabilitative model to more of a punitive model for juvenile justice, and refers to the growing evidence that brain development is not complete in adolescences until well past the age of majority. This effects judgment and decision making, giving some scientific grounding for some of the “enormous mistakes” that adolescents make. Could an understanding of juvenile brain development help families and courts to restore and rehabilitate juvenile offenders?

Ellen Lloyd, Regent University Juris Doctor 2011 Candidate, also a former juvenile probation officer and foster parent from Santa Fe, New Mexico, has pursued research in this area as it relates to juvenile law, following up on her University of Colorado undergraduate work in psychology where she focused on neurological and biological psychology, and her University of New Mexico Masters in Public Administration specializing in the management of government and non-profit agencies. She writes, "Although it has always been clear that children and adults are different, it has only been in the last twenty-five years that the understanding of these differences has passed from psychological theorizing to developmentally based understanding. With the advent of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology neurologists can now watch the brain function while subjects perform different tasks and their discoveries, while amazing, add credence to what every parent of a teenager already knew; kids don’t think like adults do."

Her work cites to Dr. Jay N. Giedd, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health who specializes in brain imaging, who has noted that:
Across cultures and millennia, the teen years have been noted as a time of dramatic changes in body and behavior. During this time most people successfully navigate the transition from depending upon family to becoming a self-sufficient adult member of the society. However, adolescence is also a time of increased conflicts with parents, mood volatility, risky behavior and, for some, the emergence of psychopathology. The physical changes associated with puberty are conspicuous and well described. The brain’s transformation is every bit as dramatic but, to the unaided eye, is visible only in terms of new and different behavior.
In Part I of her article, Lloyd takes a brief look at the history of the juvenile justice system noting the change in focus brought about by several landmark federal cases, all of which infused due process protections into a largely discretionary and ideally rehabilitative system. She notes that most recently in Roper v. Simmons the United States Supreme Court outlawed the juvenile death penalty based in large part on neurological research showing that adolescent brains are not fully developed in some important and significant ways. Part II examines crime trends with special attention to the age of the offenders as statistics show a consistent spike in offense rates for those between fifteen and twenty-five years of age. Part III explains this spike by examining, in fairly simplistic terms, the growth and development of the adolescent brain. "During adolescence important changes take place in the brain, especially in the pre-frontal cortex, which effect how juveniles process information and act and react within their environments." The article then turns to policy implications for the juvenile justice system, noting what programs are most beneficial and effective in juvenile probation and sentencing toward rehabilitation, while also making suggestions for "helping juveniles survive adolescence and, hopefully, stay out of the juvenile justice system entirely."

An understanding of juvenile brain development may indeed help families and courts to restore and rehabilitate juvenile offenders, and more adequately move into adulthood.

Read the entire article here.

1 comment:

  1. I LOVE this post!
    I have interned briefly in the juvenile courts and it literally breaks my heart seeing all the children that come through.

    I definitely agree that juveniles should be rehabilitated and, in my opinion, sending them to a correctional facility for an amount of time isn't effective.

    In addition to the raging hormones and underdeveloped brain, alot of these children come from broken homes- many without either parent or with parents who are poor role models and aren't "parenting" to any degree.

    I believe there should be some requirement for counseling to help these children deal with their history, how to cope in the real world, and reconciling their criminal act.

    In addition, releasing children into the world, after being incarcerated, with a requirement to meet with a parole officer occasionally is a complete injustice to the children and society. If they were afforded adequate and effective therapy while incarcerated and continued treatment after they were released- the number of repeat offenders, would surely decrease.

    I do NOT believe children should be charged as adults, for all of reasons stated in this article.

    It is my hope that our juvenile system will restructure how they handle these precious children and give them a "REAL" shot at success post-conviction.