CHILD AND ADOLESCENT PSYCHIATRY
The Adolescent Brain Is Different
Criminal Responsibility and Adolescents
By Peter Ash, MD |
October 26, 2012
Dr Ash is Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Chief of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Director of the Psychiatry and Law Service, Emory University, Atlanta. He reports no conflicts of interest concerning the subject matter of this article.
It is well established that among delinquent youths, the rate of mental disorders across the entire range of diagnoses is high.18,19 Excluding conduct disorders, more than 60% of incarcerated juveniles report at least one disorder, about triple the rate in the general population, and more than 40% report more than one disorder. In most cases, delinquent behavior is not thought to be "caused" by mental illness, but a mental disorder likely magnifies the effects of other factors relevant to reducing culpability through such pathways as further impairing judgment and slowing consolidation of a healthy identity. When an evaluation reveals a mental illness, the youth's amenability to treatment has implications for rehabilitation.
Attitudes toward adolescence
Attitudes toward juvenile offending range from "do the crime, do the time," with its implication for full adult punishment, to "they’re just kids"—a response that elicits more parental feelings of helping offenders not repeat their problematic behavior. Reacting to adolescents as though they are adults brings with it the ready set of attitudes that we apply to adult offenders. If we see adolescents as different from adults, but also as different from children, then we will use, or have to find, a different set of attitudes.
Attorneys often ask experts to testify "about the adolescent brain" in sentencing hearings. Why does such testimony have power? The data showing that adolescents are more impulsive come from studies of behavior, not imaging studies. But the neuroimaging data indicate that the adolescent brain is different, which carries with it an implication that the reactive attitudes that we have toward adults should not apply.
Assessments of partial culpability of adolescents are difficult in individual cases; however, the courts are moving away from mandatory sentencing to individual determinations, even for the most heinous crimes. These individual determinations can frequently be assisted by psychiatrists, because they have an ever-increasing database of behavioral and neurobiological understanding on which to base their opinions.
Also in this Special Report
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).
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