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Crime and the Adolescent Brain: The Effects of Youths Tried as Adults

By University Staff

Crime and the Adolescent Brain: The Effects of Youths Tried as Adults

How do the unique facets of juvenile brains influence criminal behavior? What happens to these brains when they interact with a justice system designed for adults? Does it make sense to try juveniles as adults? There are many answers to these questions. Enlightening new facts about the human brain – particularly an adolescent’s – is shaping the way experts view individual juvenile criminal cases as well as how criminal justice is taught to 21st century students. 

Expert Opinion: Dr. Shari Schwartz on the Impact of Juvenile Incarceration

Dr. Shari Schwartz, PhD, is keenly interested in understanding how the physiology of young brains might account for behavior, and how that impacts the moral calculus of the debate around trying juveniles as adults. As assistant professor and program chair of the social and criminal justice program at the University of Arizona Global Campus, Dr. Schwartz has conducted extensive research on the areas at which psychology intersects with the law, including judicial and juror decision making, effects of and remedies for stress in law enforcement officers, implicit bias in the criminal justice system, and psychologists as expert witnesses.

In her research, Dr. Schwartz specifically has examined what happens to developing brains in correctional facilities designed for adult populations. According to her findings, overarching data indicates many incarcerated persons ultimately “age out of crime” and that there is a particularly “sharp decline after the age of 25.

“The last part of the human brain to develop, arguably the most important part, is the frontal lobe,” Schwartz says, adding: “I don’t need a prison sentence to know I don’t want to go to prison. As a teenager, you probably haven’t processed out that far.” 

This observation coincides with studies done in the past decade that elucidate the latent development of the brain. By introducing an undeveloped brain into a stressful environment, rehabilitation could be hampered or even prevented. This underscores what Dr. Schwartz ultimately believes - that kids can be rehabilitated.

Here, we explore this topic and take a look at some recent cases, court decisions, the pros and cons of trying adolescents as adults, and what you can learn about this topic in Ashford’s criminal justice programs.  

Juveniles Tried as Adults: Recent Cases

In 2005, the United States Supreme Court's decision in Roper v. Simmons outlawed imposing the death penalty on children under the age of 18. The decision was based in part on a brief from the American Psychological Association incorporating the research of Temple University psychologist Laurence Steinberg, who studies how the mechanics of the teenage brain influence behavior. 

To explain why teenagers are more impulsive, reactive, risk-taking, and subject to peer pressure, Steinberg uses the metaphor of a car. For a teenager, the car has a fully developed accelerator but an incompletely developed braking system. 

“It's not like we go from becoming all accelerator to all brake," says Steinberg. "It's that we go from being heavy-foot-on-the-accelerator to being better able to manage the whole car."

There is a plethora of positive value when brain development is considered in individual juvenile court cases, particularly those with the potential for adult punishment. Dr. Schwartz emphasizes a few key points:

  • Welcoming neuroscience can aid in providing a solution to the mass incarceration problem
  • It can help us differentiate the level of rehabilitation required for each individual, especially under 18 repeat violent offenders.
  • It can provide a deeper understanding into how we can identify, prevent, and nurture adolescents involved in gangs, especially as we begin to understand the function of peer pressure at a neuropsychological level.

Dr. Schwartz summates the usefulness of brain science with an empathetic response: that we need to give juvenile criminals a “meaningful chance.”

New legislative action in Louisiana, Maryland, and Oregon could help to bolster this effort by raising the age at which minors can be tried as adults and concealing the identities of minor offenders, calling for a more lenient approach to juvenile justice.

Yet, even with such efforts, cases continue to occur. In 2016, a 14-year-old was arrested for throwing rocks at police officers at a political rally. Prosecutors elected to try him as an adult. In March of 2019, two juveniles arrested for a similar crime in Boyle County, Kentucky, will face the same prosecutorial treatment. Moreover, recent studies of juveniles tried as adults indicate that it is a population disproportionately made up of poor African American males, and that many are themselves victims of childhood trauma

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Trying Juveniles As Adults: Pros and Cons

As part of a larger "tough on crime" movement in the '80s, many states made it easier for prosecutors to try juveniles as adults. The justifications for this reasoning are familiar:

However, there are indications that harshly punitive trends in juvenile justice are beginning to ebb. Some psychologists believe that juveniles should be treated differently in the justice system for a number of reasons including:

Juvenile Incarceration and Higher Education

How should new findings in psychology affect the way that young offenders are treated in the justice system? One thing is certain: the future depends on the people who grapple with these issues on the ground level.

According to Dr. Schwartz, up-to-date brain science and pertinent cases are being discussed in criminal justice courses at Ashford University. This relevant information gives students a basic understanding of neuroscience as it pertains to criminal behavior and, as Dr. Schwartz put it, “how it might affect all human behavior.”

You can get involved in the conversation. When you pursue a degree in criminal justice from the University of Arizona Global Campus, you will become a crucial part of the discussions around the most important legal issues of our times, such as defining psychological concepts in legal terms, overcoming tricky ethical dilemmas, tackling the latest legal controversies surrounding technology, and keeping society safe.

Contact UAGC today to connect with top experts and professionals, engage in important debates, help shape society, and find your future.

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