The Underdeveloped Adolescent Brain: Should They Be Sentenced According to the Same Standards as Adults?
- Published: November 30, 1999
It turns out that the rebellious and sometimes over-the-top behavior associated with teenagers and puberty may actually have some neurological basis. Neuroscience has shown that teenagers’ prefrontal cortex, the frontmost part of the frontal cortex that is involved in decision-making and rationality, is not fully developed until later in early adulthood. Currently, at the University of California at Berkeley, assistant professor of psychology, Silvia Bunge, and colleagues are attempting to study the brain as it matures, specifically with regards to the prefrontal cortex, in order to improve education methods and hopefully modify the legal system to account for their findings. Bunge et al have found that in comparison to adults with fully developed prefrontal cortexes, teenagers are less able to resist impulses and have a propensity towards risky behavior. The Law and Neuroscience Project, based at UC Santa Barbara, is a foundation group of lawyers and neuroscientists working to incorporate these findings into the legal system in order to change the way teenage crimes are assessed.
The work that Silvia Bunge and colleagues is conducting is of great importance in the field of neurolaw. The premise of neurolaw is to use, when appropriate, neuroscientific findings in the courtroom so as to adequately assess crimes within the context of the criminal’s ability, self-restraint, and understanding of the nature of their crime given the state of their brain development (or in many cases, degeneration). The milestone Supreme Court case, Roper v. Simmons (2005), used similar neuroscientific evidence to conclude that capital punishment of minors is unconstitutional because the human brain, mainly the prefrontal cortex, does not finish developing until our early-to-mid 20s. However, I feel there is still more room for modification of the legal standards by which adolescent criminals are sentenced. The issue is not about whether or not an underdeveloped brain is grounds for acquittal, but rather, what post-cautionary measures must be taken to rehabilitate the criminal. For cases unrelated to the death penalty, I am a staunch believer that the adolescent criminal’s underdeveloped prefrontal cortex be taken into account during sentencing. With this knowledge in mind, we as a society should focus on rehabilitating the criminal in order to make them a productive member of society again. This does not necessarily have to be in the form of a life sentence in jail without parole, or other harsh punishments, but could be in the form of an intense rehabilitation program aimed at reacclimatizing the adolescent to the rules of society and giving them another chance to assimilate into society. Teenagers, because they show the potential to exhibit self-restraint and make better, rational choices after their prefrontal cortexes fully develop, should be sentenced accordingly and given a chance to rejoin society if their rehabilitation is successful, rather than simply atrophying away in a jail cell for the remainder of their life.