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It Ended Before It Began: Criminalizing a Young Brain

Trying to identify those circumstances where an 18- to 25-year-old might fairly be treated as a juvenile, difficult though it may be, should be a priority for a modern society, particularly for non-violent offenders with a low outlook for recidivism.
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Recently, there has been an uptick in neuropsychological research highlighting the differences between the adult and teenage brains. When we distill the output, this research tells us that the teenage brain is an underdeveloped work in progress, particularly in areas relating to impulse control, executive function, and pleasure-seeking behaviors. We now understand that the brain does not reach full maturation until some point in our 20s. This overwhelming research has spurred important new policy discussions surrounding the criminal culpability of adolescents, including the age at which an adolescent should be considered an adult for legal purposes.

These new discussions have moved us in the direction of offering adolescents more legal protections. In 2005, the Supreme Court ended the juvenile death penalty, and in 2012, the Supreme Court prohibited states from imposing mandatory life without parole sentences on defendants under the age of 18, except in the case of murder. As a result of these new policies, rehabilitated adolescents who committed crimes may receive a second chance at life. Despite these advancements, however, there are still far too many injustices in the ways young offenders are treated in the legal system throughout the United States.

During my training, I worked as a therapist in a residential treatment facility for young adult men, mostly in the 18-26 age group, struggling with substance abuse issues. The program also served as an alternative to incarceration for some who committed crimes involving illegal drugs. In New York, many young adults who commit non-violent crimes are fortunate enough to participate in alternative to incarceration programs where they receive rehabilitative and vocational services enabling them to re-enter society as a productive member.

Unfortunately, many young offenders across the country do not have similar opportunities, and for them, their lives can be effectively derailed before their adult lives can begin. Criminal convictions have long lasting economic and emotional effects on the lives of these offenders, many of whom can be left to feel as if they are outcasts from society. They can struggle to find jobs, which can create a feedback loop to a life of crime. Setting the age of adult responsibility for legal purposes at 18 years of age -- an age at which we are still biologically wired to experiment with risky behavior -- simply may not be just if the brain does not mature until sometime in our 20s.

If you are wondering what the emotional life of an adolescent offender could be like, I recommend checking out the independent film Another Earth. At its core, the film follows a young woman, recently released from prison, and struggling to re-enter society. The young woman -- who landed in prison after killing a mother and child in a drunk driving accident -- is unable to rationalize her horrendous decision-making (alarmingly, the rate of drunk driving is highest among the narrow 21-25 age band). Even armed with a powerful intellect, she is overwhelmed by complex feelings of guilt, loss and grief, not just for the mother and child she killed, but for their survivors, her own family, and her own life. In the film, the young woman is offered a second chance of sorts, though she ultimately declines the offer after finding some degree of peace on her own. Perhaps it is fitting that this second chance exists in a science-fiction movie; in real life, however, second chances are much harder to come by, especially for young offenders in lower socioeconomic populations where opportunities are already fewer and further between. Had a police officer stumbled upon a meeting of the "Choom Gang" circa 1979, would our president have been granted one?

A blanket rule absolving all young offenders from criminal culpability is not the answer. Trying to identify those circumstances where an 18- to 25-year-old might fairly be treated as a juvenile, difficult though it may be, should be a priority for a modern society, particularly for non-violent offenders with a low outlook for recidivism. This will, of course, be a hard sell politically in our country where we draft so many politicians from the prosecutorial ranks, and where a "tough on crime" mantra is an easy pitch for voters. The issue presents a profound struggle on the more micro level as well. (If you doubt his, ask yourself how you would feel if your 18-year-old son or daughter were arrested and charged with a felony. Then pivot and ask how you would feel if you or a loved one were victimized by the actions of "somebody else's" 18-year-old felon.)

Although it came in a case in which the Supreme Court did not raise the age at which an offender is eligible for the death penalty, the Court eloquently noted in Roper v. Simmons, "The qualities that distinguish juveniles from adults do not disappear when an individual turns 18." While we certainly need to draw the line between adolescence and adulthood somewhere, 18 may be too young given recent data. Most of the young offenders I encountered at the residential treatment facility made risky decisions indicative of an immature prefrontal cortex, the area in the brain that provides adults with the ability to fully control one's impulses, and appropriately judge risks and rewards. Like teenagers are wont to do, they made bad decisions, but this should not necessarily cost them their adult lives.

"They ended before they began, but there were moments when they almost made it. Glimpses, tragic and bloody and wonderful, into the love that almost was." --Unknown