Document Type

Working Paper

Publication Date



Center for Gender & Sexuality Law


Recently, American juvenile justice policy has undergone dramatic changes. In less than a generation, a justice system that viewed most lawbreakers as youngsters whose crimes were the product of immaturity has been transformed into one that often holds young offenders to the same standard of criminal accountability it imposes on adults – and generally pays little attention to differences between adolescents and adults. This essay, based on a forthcoming book by the author and developmental psychologist Laurence Steinberg, argues that scientific knowledge about adolescence and about the role of criminal activity during this developmental period is critically important as a foundation for satisfactory juvenile justice policy. For the most part, this premise translates into a legal regime that deal with young offenders as an intermediate legal category of persons – neither children nor adults.

A developmentally grounded policy is superior to the contemporary approach on both fairness and social welfare grounds. First, as the Supreme court recognized in Roper v. Simmons, adolescents, due to cognitive and psycho-social immaturity, make criminal choices that are less culpable than those of adults. Thus a regime based on mitigation is compatible with the bedrock principle of proportionality in a way that the contemporary regime is not. Beyond this, a separate more lenient juvenile justice system is superior on social welfare grounds. Criminal involvement is common in adolescence, but most youths will be inclined to desist with maturity; only a small percentage of young offenders are incipient career criminals. Correctional interventions during this critical developmental stage can have an important impact and make the transition to conventional adult roles more or less likely. The essay closes by pointing to evidence that the public and policymakers are ready to reconsider the effectiveness of the costly punitive reforms, and that the time is ripe for a new period of reform.