Adolescent Brain Development

A court in Wisconsin recently ruled that two twelve-year-old girls who stabbed a friend nearly to death, in order to appease a fictional online horror character called Slender Man, should be tried as adults. If ever there was a crime that epitomizes a child doing a horribly stupid thing because her adolescent brain was not yet fully developed, a pre-teen girl believing in a fictional character and acting violently on his behalf is it. Throwing children like these girls into the adult criminal justice system is a failure on so many levels.

I’ve written before about keeping juveniles out of adult prisons. The injustice of incarcerating children with adults is stark: skyrocketing rates of suicide, sexual assault, and abuse; the vastly disproportionate number of children of color who are dumped into adult prisons; the lack of any rehabilitation services or counseling; and the prison “solution” of keeping the children who are incarcerated with adults “safe” by isolating them in solitary confinement with no human interaction for 23 hours a day. Children tried as adults receive far longer sentences and have virtually no resources available to them while incarcerated. They are wholly unprepared for the adult world once they are finally released.

But instead of focusing on the myriad horrors children face in adult prison, I want to talk about why kids’ crimes should be treated differently from adults’ crimes – because of the profound difference in adolescent brain development. Brain science tells us that the adolescent brain isn’t really firing on all cylinders yet. The brain’s frontal lobes are where the executive functioning happens – the planning, self-awareness, impulse control, risk avoidance, and judgment. These are the things that keep most adults from committing crimes. But it turns out that steady access to the frontal lobes is one of the last neural connections to happen for young people, and it’s pretty unreliable during the teen years. Anyone who has ever spent any time with teenagers has likely noticed that their ability to resist emotional impulses and regulate their behavior is often not fully developed. They frequently seem bent on seeking risk, without fully thinking through the consequences of their actions.

It is hard for many adults to look at teenagers, who are starting look like adults, and not assume that they are fully formed on the inside. But in fact, research demonstrates that the adolescent brain is basically programmed to take absurd risks (originating out of old instincts around propagation of the species—the need to leave the home, find a partner, and reproduce). The adolescent brain’s undeveloped frontal lobes combine with an elevated risk taking desire and super-enhanced pleasure sensors to make all of those poor judgment calls that teens are so notorious for making.

Many of our laws recognize this brain development lag and its impact on a teen’s judgment. For instance, because the law says that they lack sufficient adult judgment, the now-13-year-old Slender Man-inspired girls in Wisconsin are still years away from being able to legally have sex, possess a handgun, get a tattoo, join the army, drive, vote, buy cigarettes, gamble, or drink alcohol. So why is it that in most states around the country, they can be tried, sentenced, and incarcerated as adults?

This is not to say that children who commit crimes should be given a free pass and suffer no consequences for their actions. But the consequences must recognize that children are malleable and their character and morality are still developing. The consequences should recognize that an impulsive teen who makes a bad decision can learn from that mistake and still grow into a responsible, ethical adult, once the frontal lobe connections strengthen. When teens test boundaries and make mistakes, even grave mistakes, society needs to strive to rehabilitate them. Locking them up in an adult prison for decades (or sometimes for the rest of their lives), without any rehabilitation services or child-focused learning is the ultimate cop out. It wastes their lives and taxpayers’ money.



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