If you’ve been researching the juvenile criminal system, you may have noticed that juvenile offenders are charged and treated differently than adult offenders. In most cases, juvenile offenders are tried in juvenile court and receive “punishments” that are focused toward rehabilitation instead of punishing the offender. But why are juveniles given this special treatment? What makes a 17-year-old offender different from a 19-year-old or 25-year-old offender?
Brain Development and the Teenage Brain
Role of the Frontal Cortex
Have you ever seen a teenager binge for weeks on junk food, try to street race a friend while driving, or down six shots of alcohol in an hour? These aren’t just random occurrences – there are scientific reasons behind this risky and impulsive behavior.
While adults have been known to make these risky decisions as well, these actions are more prevalent in teenagers because the frontal cortex in humans’ brains does not fully develop until later in life.
The frontal cortex is the part of the brain that controls impulsive behavior and reasoning. Our frontal cortex helps us think about the consequences of our actions before we take them. Many people’s frontal cortexes do not fully develop until well into adulthood. This means that many teenagers make reckless decisions because of their lack of brain development.
Brain Cells and Pruning
In addition, adolescence is a time when there is a rapid and sudden increase in connections among brain cells and brain pathway pruning. This rapid increase eventually allows for the development of complete thoughts, thoughtful action, and stable behavior. However, it is not until adolescence is over that these changes have been fully implemented in the brain.
Based on these factors, teenagers are more likely than adults to:
- Engage in risky or dangerous behavior.
- Get into physical or verbal fights.
- Get into accidents, such as car accidents.
- Misread the emotions of others and social cues.
- Act impulsively.
How the Court Takes Brain Development into Account
Some teens can get into trouble due to poor decision-making that is a result of their undeveloped brains. While teenagers are not mindless drones with no control over their actions or thought processes, judges will take into account the fact that impulsive behavior is something that most teens grow out of.
A judge will consider the facts of the case and try to help the offender while making sure that the best interest of the public is being served.
A judge will consider the facts of the case, the character of the defendant, the level of remorse that the defendant has, prior offenses, and more to determine appropriate punishments. These punishments might include:
- Minor fines.
- Community service.
- Anger management classes.
The nature of these punishments are to get the offender back on track and give him or her the benefit of the doubt.
Is 18 an Arbitrary Number?
In the eyes of the law, you are an adult after you turn 18. But is all brain growth achieved on each person’s 18th birthday? Of course this is not the case. Brain development continues well into adulthood for most people, and every person is different. Some reach brain maturity at age 16, while others won’t reach it until they are 25 or 30. However, the United States government has determined that 18 is a reasonable average to start treating children like adults and having them take full responsibility for their actions.