Kids Are Not Adults: Brain Research Is Providing New Insights into What Drives Teenage Behavior, Moving Lawmakers to Rethink Policies That Treat Them like Adults

By Brown, Sarah Alice | State Legislatures, April 2013 | Go to article overview

Kids Are Not Adults: Brain Research Is Providing New Insights into What Drives Teenage Behavior, Moving Lawmakers to Rethink Policies That Treat Them like Adults


Brown, Sarah Alice, State Legislatures


Juvenile justice policy is at a crossroads. Juvenile crime has decreased. Recent brain and behavioral science research has revealed new insights into how and when adolescents develop. And state budgets remain tight. Together, these factors have led many lawmakers to focus on which approaches can save money, yet keep the public safe and treat young offenders more effectively.

Why Now?

When youth violence reached a peak more than 20 years ago, the country lost confidence in its ability to rehabilitate juveniles. Legislatures responded by passing laws allowing more young offenders to be tried as adults. Since then, however, juvenile crime has steadily declined.

Between 1994 and 2010, violent crime arrest rates decreased for all age groups, but more for juveniles than for adults. More specifically, the rates dropped an average of 54 percent for teenagers 15 to 17, compared to 38 percent for those between 18 and 39. And while arrest rates for violent crimes were higher in 2010 than in 1980 for all ages over 24, the rates for juveniles ages 15 to 17 were down from 1980.

With the steady decline in juvenile violence, the current state of the economy and new information on how brain development shapes teens' behavior, some lawmakers are reconsidering past assumptions.

Legislatures across the country are working on their juvenile justice policies, from passing individual measures to revamping entire codes. Arkansas revised its juvenile justice code in 2009; Georgia and Kentucky are considering doing so, and many other states are at various stages of making changes in juvenile justice.

"It's time to bring the juvenile code back to current times and find methods that work by looking at best practices nationally," says Georgia Representative Wendell Willard (R), who introduced a bill to revise the code this session. "We need to incorporate key items, such as instruments to assess risks, and put interventions in place within communities for young people involved in the system," says Willard.

Last year, lawmakers in Kentucky formed a task force to study juvenile justice issues. The group will recommend whether to amend any of the state's current juvenile code in 2013. "Frankly, our juvenile code is out of date, but this task force will give the legislature the foundation to change that and reflect best practices nationwide," says Representative John Tilley (D), co-chair of the task force.

Changes are not always easily made, and states are at different stages of reform. Among the various viewpoints and depths of changes, however, is the generally agreed-upon belief that juveniles are different from adults.

For Adults Only

Research distinguishing adolescents from adults has led states to re-establish boundaries between the criminal and juvenile justice systems. New policies reflect the growing body of research on how the brain develops, which has discovered teens' brains do not fully develop until about age 25, according to the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice. Other social science and behavioral science also shows that kids focus on short-term payoffs rather than long-term consequences of their actions and engage in immature, emotional, risky, aggressive and impulsive behavior and delinquent acts.

Dr. David Fassler, a psychiatry professor at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, has testified before legislative committees on brain development. He says the research helps explain--not excuse--teenage behavior.

"It doesn't mean adolescents can't make rational decisions or appreciate the difference between right and wrong. But it does mean that, particularly when confronted with stressful or emotional circumstances, they are more likely to act impulsively, on instinct, without fully understanding or considering the consequences of their actions. …

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