- Published: October 31, 2012
Both juveniles and adults commit crimes, but the brains of each respond differently to punishment. How should the way we respond to criminal behavior differ between the two cases of adult offenders and juvenile offenders? Dr Laurence Steinberg, a distinguished professor of psychology at Temple University, believes for a reasons that we should treat juveniles and adults differently when it comes to sentencing. First, our justice system is built on the idea that we should punish criminals in proportion to the extent to which they are responsible for their crimes. Since children are more impetuous than adults by virtue of incomplete brain development, they are inherently less responsible for their actions. Second is a pragmatic reason: "It is important to avoid responding to juveniles' crimes in ways that will make them more likely to re-offend, as does incarceration in prison, a staggeringly expensive sanction that is ineffective beyond the period of incapacitation." Because children haven't developed fully, exposing them to prison life only makes them more likely to commit crimes as adults. The same lack of forethought that got them to prison would keep them from learning any lessons from being there.
Dr Steinberg succinctly summarizes the big picture when it comes to the question of whether or not to imprison juveniles. However, he offers no suggestion of further details: Where do we draw the bright line of juvenility? Or should we create a gradient of punishment based on age or cognitive maturity? How do we effectively punish or rehabilitate juveniles who commit crimes, instead of sending them to prison? These questions are thorny and their answers are not well understood. But before current policy can be reformed, a proposed plan needs to be developed and justified—and for that, we need further research about the effects of rehabilitiation and punishment on juveniles.