Brain Development v. the Law

Recently, it has come to our attention that people under their mid-twenties do not have fully developed brains. The lack of development in the prefrontal cortex and fewer pathways to the limbic system means that our brains can’t process rewards and punishments adequately, which directly impacts one's ability to make calculated, responsible decisions. All of this is now clear to us, but how can it be applied to the way our justice system operates?

It is cruel and unusual punishment to try eighteen year-olds as adults because their brains are not fully developed and they cannot be held fully responsible since their brain is malleable and they do not have full self control. The prefrontal cortex of the adolescent brain is developing, and since the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that is responsible for short and long term decision making, people are not capable of fully thinking through their actions and weighing the long term consequences until they are in their mid-twenties. Adolescents are vulnerable to being manipulated by their peers as well as the adults in their life, meaning that if they have poor guidance from their peers or parents they are more likely to act on them than people with fully developed brains. Ninety percent of adolescents who commit a crime do not continue to do so in their adult life, further demonstrating the extent to which brain development impacts a person’s ability to analyze their situation before they act.    

The issue is all the complexities that such adjustments would add to our already delicate justice system. Looking from the perspective of the judicial system.  While science does show that the brain has not fully developed by the age of 18, that is when a person legally becomes an adult. So, according to this logic it would make sense for a person to be tried as an adult at that age. Pushing back this cutoff may suggest that 18 year olds cannot be held responsible for their actions, and if this is the case, shouldn’t they still be considered minors who need supervision?  It is true that the neuroscience behind the other side’s argument is undeniable, implementing this solution that satisfies the needs of both sides. This is a solution that must embrace leniency as well as establish clear cut boundaries and rigidity necessary in order to keep America’s judicial system ticking.   

It is clear that both sides have valid arguments. Having knowledge is one thing, but it means nothing until it is applied to the real world. This knowledge needs to be used to advance our social structure and put the world in terms of this new found information. This is the stage that we are at currently while our perception of the development of the human brain changes, so must our judicial system. I believe that the most effective solution would be to set up different age cutoffs with increasing severity.

Our recent history shows how there have already been modifications in sentences because of lack of brain development and inability to make well thought out decisions, such as in Roper v. Simmons when in 2002 the Missouri Supreme Court stayed the execution of a man who had been committed of a crime committed at the age of 17. The Court determined that due to his immaturity, his case was comparable to a case in the U.S. Supreme Court which determined that execution of the mentally ill constituted a violation of the Eighth Amendment as it was cruel and unusual punishment for someone who could not control his actions in the same way as an average citizen. Following this, in Graham v. Florida in 2010, it was ruled that sentencing minors to a life in prison without parole, except in cases of homicide, was unconstitutional in that it constituted cruel and unusual punishment.  

    While we have not yet arrived at a scientific way to easily scan each lawbreaking young adult for neurological maturity, at least our judicial system is for the most part more aware of the difference between juveniles, young adults and mature adults. This shows that there is still hope for improvement.

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