Neuroscience Suggests the Justice System May Be Too Harsh on Young Adults

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Photo: Melanie Stetson Freeman/Christian Science Monitor/Getty

For a long time, the United States’ justice system has been notorious for its proclivity for imprisoning children. Because of laws that grant prosecutors and judges discretion to bump juveniles up to the category of “adult” when they commit crimes deemed serious enough by the authorities, the U.S. is an outlier in locking up kids, with some youthful defendants even getting life sentences. Naturally, this has attracted a great deal of outrage and advocacy from human-rights organizations, who argue that kids, by virtue of not lacking certain judgment, foresight, and decision-making abilities, should be treated a bit more leniently.

Writing for the Marshall Project and drawing on some interesting brain science, Dana Goldstein takes the argument about youth incarceration even further: We should also rethink our treatment of offenders who are young adults.

As Goldstein explains, the more researchers study the brain, the more they realize that it takes decades for the organ to develop fully and to impart to its owners their full, adult capacities for reasoning. “Altogether,” she writes, “the research suggests that brain maturation continues into one’s twenties and even thirties.” Many of these insights come from the newest generation of neuroscience research. “Everyone has always known that there are behavioral changes throughout the lifespan,” Catherine Lebel, an assistant professor of radiology at the University of Calgary who has conducted research into brain development, told Goldstein. “It’s only with new imaging techniques over the last 15 years that we’ve been able to get at some of these more subtle changes.”

The basic argument is that since we know 20-year-olds have brains that are, overall, more likely to fall victim to impulse and temptation than those of 30-year-olds, the justice system should factor in these differences. Research shows that imprisoning a 20-year-old, after all, is only going to make them more likely to commit crimes in the future. And as Goldstein’s article notes, we live in an age in which millions of young men of this age lack economic opportunities, and in which far fewer of them settle down with a spouse and kids at a young age than was the case fairly frequently — people “grow up” slower in a sociological sense than they used to. Throwing a young adult in prison for an extended term, rather than helping them get the resources they need to live a productive life, is often a net negative for society.

Now, it’s important to remember that this brain-development stuff is complex. For example, everyone’s brain develops at a different rate — some 20-year-olds have far more “mature” brains than others. It’s impossible to make any one-size-fits-all statements about people’s reasoning and judgment capabilities at a given age.

What is clear, though, is that there are important average differences between young adults and older ones, and that many states in the U.S. don’t recognize that difference. Luckily, as Goldstein notes, “Raise the age” campaigns — that is, raise the age of the cutoff between juvenile and adult, sweeping more young adults into the former category — are starting to gain traction in a lot of places, even if these initiative often face political opposition. So it might take a while, but it feels like the justice system is showing some signs of willingness to adopt the latest, most accurate brain science.