The Center for Law, Brain & Behavior puts the most accurate and actionable neuroscience in the hands of judges, lawyers, policymakers and journalists—people who shape the standards and practices of our legal system and affect its impact on people’s lives. We work to make the legal system more effective and more just for all those affected by the law.

The Crimes of Children

By Dylan Walsh | The Atlantic | August 10, 2015

Round Rock High School, just north of Austin in the Texas Hill Country, sprawls over 88 acres. It feels like a small liberal-arts college: There is a junior R.O.T.C. Training center. There are basketball courts, a gymnastics facility, a swimming pool, a football field, soccer fields, and a baseball diamond that, along its outfield fence, bears a faded sign commemorating the school’s 1997 state championship victory.

In January 2007, the principal called 17-year-old Jean Karlo Ponzanelli out of first-period history class and down to the office to join a waiting detective who took him to the local station for questioning. A girl he knew had run away from home and the police were curious about her whereabouts. They also suspected domestic abuse. (The girl declined a request for an interview, so her name has been withheld to protect her privacy.)

Ponzanelli had known this girl since the last day of 2005, when he attended a New Year’s Party at her home. “We go to the same high school,” he remembers her telling him in the kitchen.

“You’re in high school?” Ponzanelli asked.

Another partygoer asked her how old she was. “I’m 15,” she said.

After that, Ponzanelli and the girl drifted in the same suburban mix. He never ran into her in the hallways, but he’d often see her hanging out with his friends in the high-school parking lot at the end of the day. On occasion, she would call him and give a location and he would drive over. “Sometimes she had bruises on her face,” Ponzanelli said.

Ponzanelli said he couldn’t help the detective with her whereabouts that day. He hadn’t heard from the girl for some time. In the course of their meandering conversation, though, the Round Rock Police Department gathered another piece of information: Ponzanelli and the girl had had sex three times. On the first two occasions, the officer calculated, Ponzanelli had been 16 and she’d been 13. In Texas, sex with a minor younger than 14 is a first-degree felony.

A week later, when Ponzanelli walked out of the same first-period history class, he says waiting police officers cuffed him, bent him over the hood of their car, searched his backpack, loaded him into the back seat, and drove off to the county jail in Georgetown 10 miles north. The felony complaint, signed on January 19, 2007, states that the defendant “confessed to knowing the victim was 13 years old and still having sex with her anyway.”

Although the girl’s mother called for leniency, Ponzanelli was charged with aggravated sexual assault. When the state offered him the lesser charge of attempted sexual assault, he accepted the plea deal. But the crime was still a third-degree felony, and as a result, it came with mandatory jail time. He received six months in Williamson County Jail and 10 years of probation.

Ponzanelli started serving his time in an open room known as “the tank,” which contained four bunk beds, seven roommates, and a small patch of floor space. He was later removed to a single cell where he was confined all day save one hour in which he could exercise, shower, and make a phone call. He had no interaction with other inmates. He spent his 18th birthday, his high-school prom night, and his graduation day in that cell. He never received a diploma.

This was Ponzanelli’s first arrest. His second happened less than a year after his release on July 20, 2007, after he had rejoined the Round Rock community as a publicly registered sex offender. The label would apply for 10 years, though the clock would only start ticking after he finished probation. Registration restricted him from any form of contact with children younger than 17, including by phone or email. He could not live in a house with an Internet connection, nor, according to orders of community supervision, could he go within 1,000 feet of parks, schools, daycare centers, pools, playgrounds, “or other places where minor children younger than 17 congregate without specific approval of the Court.”

The apartment where Ponzanelli lived with his mother was near a public pool. The Court did not give specific approval for Ponzanelli to remain there. But he had nowhere else to go and no money of his own, so he stayed. He said the police would show up on his doorstep and question his mother while he hid in his room. “My mom was all scared,” Ponzanelli said. He knew that, in time, he would be caught and re-incarcerated for violating his probation. He made it through the closing of summer and all of autumn. He made it partway through winter, into the early months of 2008.

One evening in late February of 2008, Ponzanelli was skateboarding with a friend in the parking lot of an apartment complex. Before his incarceration, Ponzanelli had skated competitively and earned a sponsorship from a skate store in the neighboring town of Leander. He had received free gear from Vans and commuted to work by skateboard through the dystopian interchanges of suburban Texas.

“Don’t look now,” Ponzanelli’s friend told him as they warmed up. “There’s an undercover cop car across the street.”

Ponzanelli didn’t look, but a few minutes later a voice commanded him to get off his skateboard and turn around. Ponzanelli turned to see two policemen advancing with guns drawn. “I picked up my board and just kind of stood there,” he said. They arrested him for failing to comply with the sex-offender registration requirements.

Ponzanelli was sent to a state prison in Huntsville, Texas, where he spent his 19th, 20th, and 21st birthdays. During that time, his file surfaced before U.S. Immigrations Customs and Enforcement. To their surprise—and, Ponzanelli says, to his own—he had never been a citizen of the United States: His mother, a Mexican citizen, had brought him across the border illegally when he was an infant. Deportation proceedings began.


Registration as a sex offender and deportation are both collateral consequences—statutory penalties that attach to charges after a sentence is served. There’s an identifiable logic to some of these consequences: Convicted of laundering money? Then you’re barred from the financial industry, at least temporarily. Caught molesting children? Then you can’t work in a daycare. Others, like deportation or felony disenfranchisement, are more purely punitive. (In Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia, more than one out every five African Americans lacks the right to vote because of this penalty.) Some of these sanctions don’t seem to match the crime at all: Busted on drug possession? Your barbershop license can be revoked.

Judges have no discretion over collateral consequences, and lawyers rarely grasp their extent. A recent project by the American Bar Association, the first of its kind, compiled every consequence in every state and found more than 40,000 on the books.

The U.S. juvenile courts split off from adult courts to protect against precisely this kind of scarlet lettering. A band of social reformers at the turn of the 20th century believed the stigma of incarceration affects children differently than adults. These reformers argued for courts that shielded children’s identities from the public and walled their cases off from corrosive media coverage; they argued that kids occupy an unusual behavioral chrysalis and urged sentencing that allowed them to learn from their mistakes. The juvenile justice system, opined the Supreme Court of Arizona in 1942, ought to “hide youthful errors from the full gaze of the public and bury them in the graveyard of the forgotten past.”

Decades of research on the peculiarities of adolescence reinforce this approach. Teenagers are rebellious, reckless, shortsighted, and tragically susceptible to peer pressure. They are impetuous and poor judges of many things that adults consider worthy of measured judgment. Eighty to 90 percent of teenage boys acknowledge, in anonymous surveys, having committed a delinquent act serious enough to result in incarceration. In short, kids, like the mentally ill, strain the norms of legal culpability.

Slowly and unevenly, the Supreme Court is shaping this science into precedent. In 2005, the Court forbade capital punishment for those under 18. It prohibited life without parole for juvenile non-homicides in 2010, and, in 2012, deemed it unconstitutional for anyone under 18 to serve a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole.

But while the judicial treatment of youth has gained nuance, a few particularly severe collateral consequences persist, undermining the historical ideal that what happens in juvenile court stays in juvenile court. The Adam Walsh Act of 2006, for instance, demands that state sex-offender registries include juveniles who are at least 14-years-old when they commit certain crimes. (Juvenile sex offenses, which account for about a quarter of all sex offenses in the United States, can range from teen sexting to the violent molestation of a young child.)

The inclusion of juveniles on registries was largely instigated by the congressional testimony of Amie Zyla, who was molested at the age of 8 by a 14-year-old family friend. The friend was sent to juvenile detention, released, and a decade later rearrested for the sexual assault of multiple children. “The simple truth is that juvenile sex offenders turn into adult predators,” Zyla testified.

Twenty-seven states currently publicize their juvenile registries. Texas, which has almost 70,000 registered sex offenders, is one of these, and stands out as particularly severe in its treatment of youth. Children as young as 10 can be placed on its registry. The state also imposes what’s known as “Condition X” on many offenders. This makes supervision requirements tighter, disallowing volunteer work without the permission of a parole officer, for instance, or requiring submitting to a search—of a person, motor vehicle, or house—at any time without a warrant.

Other severe collateral consequences include eviction from public housing and deportation. When juvenile defendants live in government-subsidized apartments, their arrests or misbehavior can swallow entire families in eviction proceedings. This can happen even before a court declares innocence or guilt. And for a child raised, but not born, in the United States, a crime as light as shoplifting can result in deportation to a country in which he has no immediate family and no way to communicate.

Such punishments are “the gift that keeps on giving,” said Lisa Thurau, the executive director of the Boston-based policy and training organization Strategies for Youth. “If you really wanted to marginalize people, you couldn’t do a much better job than our system of juvenile collateral consequences.”

Read the rest of the article, originally published by The Atlantic, here.