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Rewiring juvenile justice: the intersection of developmental neuroscience and legal policy

By Alexandra O. Cohen and BJ Casey | February 2014 | Trends in Cognitive Sciences

The past decade has been marked by historic opinions regarding the culpability of juveniles by the US Supreme Court. In 2005, the death penalty was abolished, 5 years later, life without parole for crimes, other than homicide, was banned, and then just last year, mandatory life sentences for any crime was abolished. The court referenced developmental science in all these cases. In this article, we highlight new scientific findings and their relevance to law and policy.

The past decade has witnessed a series of US Supreme Court decisions relevant to differential treatment of juvenile versus adult offenders that reference developmental science. In 2005 (Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551) the majority held that execution of offenders under the age of 18 violated the Eighth Amendment barring ‘cruel and unusual punishments’. That decision moved nearly 100 inmates off death row in a dozen states. In Graham v. Florida (2010), the Court held that juvenile offenders could not be sentenced to life in prison without parole for nonhomicide crimes. At that time, an estimated 100 inmates were serving Juvenile life without parole sentences for nonhomicide offenses. The 2000 or more inmates serving Juvenile life without parole for homicide were unaffected. Then, just last year (2012) in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, the Supreme Court held that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment. The ruling only stated that a juvenile could not be subjected to a mandatory sentence of life without parole. Therefore, inconsistencies in the treatment of juveniles remain, because these laws are regulated predominantly by the state that allows jurisdictions to impose different penalties on juvenile offenders.

Across all the Supreme Court cases, scientific evidence of immature cognitive functioning in juveniles was cited in the majority opinion. In this article, we highlight recent scientific discoveries on both behavioral and brain development relevant to these cases, and the treatment of minors, focusing on the recent Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs cases. There are several similarities in these two cases. In Miller v. Alabama, Miller was convicted of murder and given life without parole when he and another teen set fire to a trailer following an altercation with an adult male, who later died of smoke inhalation. In Jackson v. Hobbs, Jackson was one of three teens involved in robbing a video store when one of the other teens pulled a gun and killed the store clerk. He was sentenced to life without parole. Both Miller and Jackson were male and 14-years old. Both cases involved emotionally charged situations and accomplices. These cases highlight the importance of understanding developmental and situational effects on brain and behavior during adolescence. We present recent scientific discoveries that go beyond simple cognitive abilities and suggest that adolescents are more reactive in emotionally charged and social situations than adults due to changes in refinement of competing brain circuitry.

Read the full paper here.