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Juvenile justice often at odds with our knowledge of development

In Wisconsin as in other states, there is a lot of controversy about the ways in which juvenile offenders are prosecuted. The age of adulthood in most of the country is 18, and in Wisconsin an offender can be tried as an adult at age 17. What most people never really consider, however, is that both of these numbers are essentially arbitrary divisions between childhood and adulthood.

Why does this matter? Quite simply put, the consequences of being tried and convicted as an adult are often significantly higher than being tried and convicted as a juvenile. An adult criminal record obtained as a minor could very well follow a person for the rest of his life. So how do we appropriately respond to juvenile offenses and offenders?

This question is more complex than you may realize. In last two decades or so, a growing body of research has broadened scientific understanding of adolescent development. The way that minors develop in their teen years is much less linear than once thought.

A recent New York Times article discusses the dichotomy between a teenager’s physical and chronological ages (how old they actually are) and their psychological age. The speed at which an adolescent matures socially and psychologically often fails to coincide with his physical age and level of physical development. In a group of 13-year-olds, for instance, some may be looking and acting as young as 10 and others may look and act more like 16.

Other research into brain development during adolescence shows that teenagers are often underdeveloped in parts of the brain that control impulses and weigh consequences. As such, they may be more likely to experiment with drugs, alcohol, risky sex behavior and other things that could get them into physical and legal trouble. If we understand that a teenager may simply lack impulse control during this phase of development, can we ethically hold them as culpable as we would an adult?

Teenagers and even younger children are capable of committing acts society considers to be crimes; some of which can be gruesome. But their level of guilt and their capacity to differentiate between right and wrong are much harder to determine. As such, we must be very careful and thoughtful in our approach to juvenile justice.

Source: The New York Times, "Thirteen in Years, but 10 or 15 in Thoughts and Action," Annie Murphy Paul, June 18, 2014

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