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The Adolescent Brain Is Different

The Adolescent Brain Is Different

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).

Legal background

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)

Table 1

Mental health issues in punishing adolescents

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.


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