Sixteen-year-old John and 2 friends go to a club where they get into a verbal argument with 3 members of a rival gang. After receiving a particularly gross insult, John pulls out a handgun and fires 3 shots at one of the gang members. He misses, but one of his shots hits a 15-year-old girl in the head and kills her. John is tried in adult criminal court and is convicted of murder.
Judges and attorneys who deal with such cases have many questions that involve mental health issues. How morally responsible is the adolescent defendant? How likely is he to offend again? How amenable is he to rehabilitation? How will handling this case in a particular way affect other juveniles? Punishment is often seen as having 4 potential purposes: retribution, incapacitation, rehabilitation, and deterrence. Mental health experts potentially have something to say that is relevant to each of these purposes—both at the level of the individual defendant and at the level of developing social policy for handling offending adolescents (Table 1).
This past June, the US Supreme Court decided the case Miller v Alabama, in which the Court held 5 to 4 that youths younger than 18 years could not be given mandatory life without parole.1This decision does leave open the possibility of a life sentence without parole for a youth, but only after a judge or jury determines that such a sentence is suitable in that particular case.
The Miller v Alabama decision is the latest in a line of cases going back 25 years in which the Supreme Court has increasingly limited the situations in which minors may receive the most extreme punishments, based largely on a theory of reduced culpability. In Thompson v Oklahoma, the Supreme Court held that it was unconstitutional to impose the death penalty on defendants who were younger than 16 years when they committed their offenses.2 The basic logic was laid out by Justice Stevens, who wrote for the majority in 1988:
. . . the Court has already endorsed the proposition that less culpability should attach to a crime committed by a juvenile than to a comparable crime committed by an adult. The basis for this conclusion is too obvious to require extended explanation. Inexperience, less education, and less intelligence make the teenager less able to evaluate the consequences of his or her conduct while at the same time he or she is much more apt to be motivated by mere emotion or peer pressure than is an adult. The reasons why juveniles are not trusted with the privileges and responsibilities of an adult also explain why their irresponsible conduct is not as morally reprehensible as that of an adult.2(p835)
In the years since that decision, a good deal of research has put meat on the bones of Justice Stevens' characterization of adolescent behavior and on the neurobiology that underlies it. In the 2005 case Roper v Simmons, the Supreme Court found that the execution of minors was cruel and unusual punishment and thus unconstitutional, basing a reduced culpability analysis on 3 aspects of adolescence: immaturity with impulsivity, vulnerability to adverse environmental factors, and the fact that an adolescent's character is not well formed.3(pp569-570) In 2010, using much of the reasoning of Roper v Simmons, the Court found it unconstitutional to sentence adolescents to life without parole for crimes less than murder.4 In cases involving less serious charges, psychiatric assessments may be used in arguing that a case should be tried in juvenile court—an outcome that usually results in less severe penalties.
1. Miller v Alabama, 567 US (2012).
2. Thompson v Oklahoma, 487 US 815 (1988).
3. Roper v Simmons, 543 US 551; 2005.
4. Graham v Florida, 560 US, 130 S.Ct. 2011, (2010).
5. Elliott DS. Serious violent offenders: onset, developmental course, and termination: The American Society of Criminology 1993 Presidential Address. Criminology. 1994;32:1-22.
6. Office of the Surgeon General. Youth Violence: A Report of the Surgeon General. Rockville, MD: US Public Health Service, Office of the Surgeon General; 2001.
7. Monahan KC, Steinberg L, Cauffman E, Mulvey EP. Trajectories of antisocial behavior and psychosocial maturity from adolescence to young adulthood. Dev Psychol. 2009;45:1654-1668.
8. Zimring FE. Penal proportionality for the young offender: notes on immaturity, capacity, and diminished responsibility. In: Grisso T, Schwartz RG, eds. Youth on Trial: A Developmental Perspective on Juvenile Justice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 2000:271-289.
9. Ash P. But he knew it was wrong: evaluating adolescent culpability. J Am Acad Psychiatry Law. 2012;40:21-32.
10. Cauffman E, Steinberg L. (Im)maturity of judgment in adolescence: why adolescents may be less culpable than adults. Behav Sci Law. 2000;18:741-760.
11. American Medical Association, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Brief for the American Medical Association and American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry as Amici Curiae in Support of Neither Party, in Miller v. Alabama, US Supreme Court Cases Nos. 10-9646, 10-9647; 2012.
12. American Psychological Association. Brief of the American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association, National Association of Social Workers, and Mental Health America as Amici Curiae Supporting Petitioners, in Graham v. Florida and Sullivan v. Florida, US Supreme Court Case Nos. 08-7412 and 08-7621; 2009.
13. Giedd JN. The teen brain: insights from neuroimaging. J Adolesc Health. 2008;42:335-343.
14. Johnson SB, Blum RW, Giedd JN. Adolescent maturity and the brain: the promise and pitfalls of neuroscience research in adolescent health policy. J Adolesc Health. 2009;45:216-221.
15. Raznahan A, Shaw P, Lalonde F, et al. How does your cortex grow? J Neurosci. 2011;31:7174-7177.
16. Fagan J. Contexts of choice by adolescents in criminal events. In: Grisso T, Schwartz RG, eds. Youth on Trial: A Developmental Perspective on Juvenile Justice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 2000:371-401.
17. Lynam DR, Caspi A, Moffitt TE, et al. Longitudinal evidence that psychopathy scores in early adolescence predict adult psychopathy. J Abnorm Psychol. 2007;116:155-165.
18. Marsteller FA, Brogan D, Smith I, et al. The Prevalence of Psychiatric Disorders Among Juveniles Admitted to Department of Children and Youth Services Regional Youth Detention Centers: Technical Report. Atlanta: Georgia Dept of Juvenile Justice; 1997.
19. Teplin LA, Abram KM, McClelland GM, et al. Psychiatric disorders in youth in juvenile detention. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2002;59:1133-1143.