- Published: October 24, 2012
- Written by Angela Lin
In the United States, adolescents are deemed to lack the competence to make reasonable decisions and to act in logical, cognitively mature ways. At 16 or shortly before, the law says they have the mental competence to drive, at 18, to vote and to serve in the military, at 21, to purchase and consume alcohol. But in most states, adolescents as young as 14 can be tried in criminal court as adults, and in the case of serious violent felonies, some states allow juveniles to be tried in adult court at even younger ages.1 What kind of logic says that neurodevelopmental maturity can be extrapolated from the seriousness of an offense? In the case of a serious offense, it would seem to me that the developmental maturity of the individual should be more carefully examined - if anything, it might suggest a lower level of neuro-behavioral development than his/her age-mates.
Additionally, not all neurological functions mature at the same rate, and relative to the general populations, individuals mature at different rates with respect to different systems. In this respect, the current patchwork of legal age restrictions makes some sort of neuroscientific sense, though the specific ages might not have any scientific basis. However, Dr. Steinberg suggests that the irrationality of a system that allows teenagers to drive before they can watch R-rated movies alone or to face combat before they can buy alcohol has more to do with politics than science.2
Developmental neuroscience has the potential to help shape public policy and create more rational guidelines for defining "adult" with respect to different legal issues. However, it seems unlikely that the legal system will adopt neuroscientifically-based age limits anytime soon.