On Sunday, August 10, 2014, at the Annual Meeting of the American Bar Association (ABA), the ABA Commission on Youth at Risk presented an important panel to frontline legal practitioners on the latest research and legal developments related to the adolescents offenders. The forum addressed the following questions:
- What is reasonable juvenile behavior under the law?
- What does research tell us about teens’ brains and how it influences their behavior?
- How is a young person affected long term when the legal system harshly treats and places stigmatizing labels on him or her?
- How do we ensure the legal system does not further traumatize or inappropriately punish juveniles who enter the courts?
We know teens’ brains are still maturing well into their 20s. This affects their judgment, impulsivity, foresight and other characteristics that affect their moral and legal culpability. Lawyers representing juveniles must know the medical and psychological research on adolescent brain development and how this is reshaping legal and systemic responses to them.
The law is changing in response to research. The U.S. Supreme Court, in Miller and Graham, cited adolescent brain development research to hold that states could not impose mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. Legislatures and youth-serving systems are also reexamining responses to juvenile behavior considered offensive, disruptive, or criminal.
Speakers included The Hon. Jay Blitzman, Massachusetts Juvenile Court, Middlesex Division; The Hon. Roderick Ireland, Chief Justice, Massachusetts Supreme Court; David Fassler, M.D., Child Psychiatrist, University of Vermont College of Medicine, Burlington, VT; Adriana Galvan, Ph.D., Adolescent Psychologist, University of California at Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA; Marsha Levick, J.D., Juvenile Law Center, Philadelphia, PA; and Xavier McElrath-Bey, Youth Justice Advocate, Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.