Adolescent Development and the Regulation of Youth Crime

Article excerpt

Summary

Elizabeth Scott and Laurence Steinberg explore the dramatic changes in the law's conception of young offenders between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. At the dawn of the juvenile court era, they note, most youths were tried and punished as if they were adults. Early juvenile court reformers argued strongly against such a view, believing that the justice system should offer young offenders treatment that would cure them of their antisocial ways. That rehabilitative model of juvenile justice held sway until a sharp upswing in youth violence at the end of the twentieth century led both public opinion and public policy toward a view that youths should be held to the same standard of criminal accountability as adults. Lawmakers seemed to lose sight of developmental differences between adolescents and adults.

But Scott and Steinberg note that lawmakers and the public appear now to be rethinking their views once more. A justice system that operates on the principle of "adult time for adult crime" now seems to many to take too little note of age and immaturity in calculating criminal punishment. In 2005 the United States Supreme Court abolished the juvenile death penalty as cruel and unusual punishment, emphasizing that the immaturity of adolescents made them less culpable than adult criminals. In addition, state legislatures recently have repealed or moderated some of the punitive laws they recently enacted. Meanwhile, observe the authors, public anger has abated and attitudes toward young offenders have softened somewhat.

In response to these changes, Scott and Steinberg argue that it is appropriate to reexamine juvenile justice policy and to devise a new model for the twenty-first century. In this article, they propose what they call a developmental model. They observe that substantial new scientific evidence about adolescence and criminal activity by adolescents provides the building blocks for a new legal regime superior to today's policy. They put adolescent offenders into an intermediate legal category--neither children, as they were seen in the early juvenile court era, nor adults, as they often are seen today. They observe that such an approach is not only more compatible than the current regime with basic principles of fairness at the heart of the criminal law, but also more likely to promote social welfare by reducing the social cost of juvenile crime.

**********

During the closing decades of the twentieth century, juvenile justice policy underwent major change. In less than a generation, a justice system that had viewed most young lawbreakers as youngsters whose crimes were the product of immaturity was transformed into one that stands ready to hold many youths to the same standard of criminal accountability it imposes on adults. These changes took place through far-reaching legal and policy reforms in almost every state that have facilitated adult prosecution and punishment of juveniles and expanded the use of incarceration in the juvenile system. As the reforms proceeded, often in a frenzy of public fear and anger about violent juvenile crime, lawmakers appeared to assume that any differences between adolescents and adults were immaterial when it comes to devising youth crime policies.

Today, lawmakers and the public appear to be having second thoughts about a justice system in which age and immaturity often are ignored in calculating criminal punishment. In 2005, the United States Supreme Court, in Roper v. Simmons, abolished the juvenile death penalty as cruel and unusual punishment in an opinion that emphasized that the immaturity of adolescents made them less culpable than adult criminals. (1) Further, legislatures recently have repealed or moderated some of the punitive laws enacted with enthusiasm just a few years ago. Meanwhile, opinion polls show that public anger has abated and that more paternalistic attitudes toward young offenders have resurfaced. …