Don't Treat Young Adults as Teenagers

By Laurence Steinberg; Thomas Grisso; Elizabeth S Scott; Richard J Bonnie | International New York Times, May 3, 2016 | Go to article overview

Don't Treat Young Adults as Teenagers


Laurence Steinberg; Thomas Grisso; Elizabeth S Scott; Richard J Bonnie, International New York Times


Raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 21 in the United States is misguided.

Over the past dozen years, the U.S. Supreme Court has issued several landmark decisions affirming that adolescents and adults are fundamentally different in ways that justify treating minors less harshly when they violate the criminal law. The court, drawing on psychological and brain science indicating that people under age 18 are not yet fully capable of controlling their behavior, abolished the juvenile death penalty and greatly restricted life without parole sentences for crimes by juveniles. As scientists and legal scholars who specialize in these issues, we have welcomed these changes with enthusiasm.

But in recent months, a number of advocates have sought to extend the developmental immaturity argument to young adults, proposing that the age of juvenile court jurisdiction be raised to 21 from 18, where it now stands in almost all states. This idea has gained some real-world traction. Late last year, for example, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy of Connecticut called on his state's Legislature to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction, and Illinois and Vermont are now contemplating a similar change.

Such reform, though well intended, is premature at best. While considerable scientific evidence supports the distinction that the Supreme Court endorsed between adolescents under age 18 and adults, research on the maturity of young adults (i.e., those between 18 and 21) is at an early stage. We know that brain maturation continues past age 18, but it is not clear that the brains of 20-year-olds are so immature that they should be treated as if they are teenagers.

For example, research indicates that a hypersensitivity to reward causes teenagers to focus on the short-term consequences of their actions and assign less importance to the future, which often inclines them toward impetuous and risky activity (such as crime). We know of no evidence indicating that the same is true with regard to young adults.

A new study complicates things further. In this research, which appeared this year in Psychological Science, a team led by the neuroscientist B.J. Casey (and including several of us) looked at the impact of emotional arousal on impulse control in three age groups: juveniles between 13 and 17, young adults between 18 and 21, and adults ages 22 to 25. The participants were presented with a rapid series of calm, fearful and happy faces and instructed to press a button when one type of face was shown, but to resist doing so when it was one of the other types. During the experiment, the participants' emotional state was manipulated from time to time by leading them to expect that at any moment they might experience something positive (winning a prize), something negative (hearing a loud noise), or neither. …

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