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#YJAM: What Science and Common Sense Tell Us About Kids and the Law

Posted in 2015, Research & Policy Monday, 05 October 2015

YJAM FB brain 01 28129A few years ago, my best friend’s husband was laid off. We were upset. In fact, we were very upset and we were not sure how to best cope with the news. One of us had the amazing idea of relying on an old high school technique of payback known as “egging someone’s house”. We talked about the pros and cons of driving to the boss’s house and just pelting it with a couple dozen eggs. “It would feel so good” one of us said, “…and serve him right” we said; but someone brought up the possibility of being caught and possibly arrested. I remember thinking that it would be hard, and beyond embarrassing, to explain to my friends and colleagues that at 42 years old I had been arrested for vandalism because I egged someone’s house. We then successfully used our mature and experienced brains to talk ourselves out of taking any action and moved on to more reasonable ways to cope with the situation.

This story frequently comes to mind when thinking about the numerous reasons why trying children as adults in a court of law makes absolutely no sense. My story demonstrates a compelling, and quite striking, contradiction in the law: No matter how “juvenile” our crime might have been, the idea of transferring the case to juvenile court would be unheard of because we, at 42 years of age, are simply too old to be considered juveniles. This makes sense. We have more life experience and more developed brains, and it is simply not just to try 42 year olds in juvenile court no matter how ridiculous their behavior. Yet, it is common practice to try children as adults in a court of law. In most states, children who are charged with violent crimes are transferred to adult court. If we follow the very simple logic above, this is simply not just. There are no twelve year olds who have fully mature brains, or have the experiences that adults have.  It simply does not make sense.

I appreciate that as a neuroscientist I should probably try to bolster my argument by detailing the many well-established facts about the development of the human brain that have consistently shown clear and reliable differences between the structure and function of adolescent brains relative to adult brains. These facts have been heard, and endorsed by, the Supreme Court of this country in two separate recent rulings that prohibit the execution of juvenile offenders (Roper v. Simmons) and prevent juveniles from receiving mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole (Miller v. Alabama).

As breathtaking as I find neuroscience, it pales in comparison to common sense. On par with the ridiculousness of trying adults as juveniles would be the notion of having a jury made up of 12-16 year olds. I think we would be hard pressed to find someone who would endorse this as a reasonable idea. Why? Because we know that 12-16 year olds are not fully mature and as a result we legally prohibit them from serving on juries.

We prohibit young people from engaging in a whole host of things because we feel that they lack the maturity to fully grasp the potential consequences of their actions. In spite of this, we support the idea that an adolescent who commits a violent act has somehow overcome the well-known cognitive and behavioral limitations of their age and should now, in the eyes of the court, been seen as an adult. Ironically, there is no display of mature behavior that allows a sixteen year old to vote, serve on a jury or be named the legal guardian of a younger sibling. Again, there is a deeply disturbing paradox in the notion that anti-social behavior can help you be seen as an adult in the eyes of the court, but no amount of pro-social mature behavior would ever accomplish this.

I am a college professor, and when our students make mistakes (and I can assure you that especially in their first year many do) we are quick to ask “why”. We lean in closely and as the adults around them we try to determine what support they need to learn from their mistake… they are not placed in solitary confinement. As obtuse as this comparison might seem, it is a reality. When a seventeen year old at college makes a poor decision we give careful consideration to penalties that are punitive and educational, we try to get them “back on track”; when a seventeen-year-old living at home in the Bronx makes a poor decision, they spend the evening (and very likely much longer) at Rikers Island among an adult criminal population.

This is unacceptable. Juvenile court was founded on the idea that in addition to being less responsible for their behavior, juveniles should also be regarded as a population for whom remediation is highly likely. As a neuroscientist who studies adolescents, I know this is true. However when we take away this opportunity by transferring their cases to adult court we are acting with about as much common sense as a 42 year old who eggs someone’s house.

Abigail Baird is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Vassar College

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