Ask any parent of a teenager whether teenagers think like adults and you are likely to get a hearty chuckle from the parent. It is self-evident that teenagers do not have the same reasoning and decision-making skills as an adult. We don’t need to be the parent of a teen to know—after all we were teens once and we no doubt remember the stupid things we did.
Brain science has come a long way in helping us discover why this is so. It is now an accepted scientific fact that the human brain does not fully mature until a person reaches his or her early 20’s. And the areas of the brain responsible for controlling impulses and planning ahead are among the last areas of the brain to mature.
Yet, our justice system typically treats the juvenile offender (roughly 15-18 years old) as an adult. It is always tragic when a young person commits a crime but shouldn’t we be taking into consideration the fact that these teen criminals are not capable of controlling their impulses or making a decision in the same way that adults are? The Supreme Court says “yes.”
The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishments and it is made applicable to the States by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In 2005, the United States Supreme Court held in the case Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005) that the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments prohibit application of the death penalty to juvenile offenders between the ages of 15 and 18 who are convicted of a capital crime. The Supreme Court recognized that science has established that a young person’s brain has not yet matured. As the Court observed: The qualities of the youthful brain “often result in impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions.”
Five years later in Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), the Supreme Court considered whether a sentence of life without parole was appropriate for a juvenile convicted of a non-homicide crime. Again the Court deferred to the scientific understanding of the teen brain and held that such a sentence is prohibited by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment.
Three years later in 2012, the Supreme Court held in the case Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012) that mandatory penalty schemes, which prohibit the consideration of mitigating factors for juveniles, violated Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The Court observed that juveniles are not “miniature adults” and they should not be treated as such. The Court again recognized the brain science which informs us that teens lack maturity and have an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, which often leads to recklessness, impulsivity and risk-taking behaviors. The Court also noted that the teen brain is more vulnerable to outside influences and pressures.
All of these cases noted that the teen brain, being not fully formed, is less fixed and presents a greater possibility for positive change and reform than does the adult brain. Because the teen brain is still forming, it is more susceptible to bad acts, yet also more capable of reform.
When a teen commits a horrible crime, it is difficult to give him or her the excuse that the crime was committed due to an immature brain. But, if not an excuse, it is often a reason. Of course, most teens don’t go around committing heinous crimes just because they don’t have adult brains, but those teens that do commit such crimes are, at least in part, often a victim of their immature brain. A child who is not well-guided in life or who is easily influenced by the wrong person may end up committing a crime that he or she would never commit if given a few more years at life. There are many adults, even elderly adults, who have spent their entire adult life in prison because of a crime they committed as a teen. The Supreme Court has now recognized that these young offenders are often deserving of a chance at rehabilitation.
When a teen is arrested and charged with a crime, he or she needs an experienced juvenile defense attorney who can fight to keep the case in juvenile court or, if moved to adult court, make sure the crime is tried with special consideration to the offender’s still developing brain.