Document Type

Article

Publication Date

2016

Center/Program

Center for Gender & Sexuality Law

Abstract

In the past decade, much attention has focused on developmental brain research and its implications for the regulation of crime. Public and policy interest has been directed primarily toward juveniles. In light of recent research, courts and legislatures increasingly have rejected the punitive response of the 1990s and embraced a developmental approach to young offenders.1 Of particular importance in propelling this trend has been the framework offered by the U.S. Supreme Court in a series of Eighth Amendment opinions that have rejected harsh adult sentences for juveniles. 2 These decisions, supported by adolescent brain research,3 rested on two empirically based principles: First, juvenile offenders, due to their developmental immaturity, typically are less culpable and, therefore, deserve less punishment than their adult counterparts. Second, because their criminal conduct is the product of immaturity, most juveniles have a greater potential to reform than do adults. This framework has influenced broader sentencing reforms for juvenile offenders.4 It has also led policymakers to focus on the impact of juvenile justice settings and programs on youth development and crime reduction.5

More recently, advocates and some policymakers have argued that developmental research should shape the law's response to young adult offenders.6 Over the past decade, developmental psychologists and neuroscientists have found that biological and psychological development continues into the early twenties, well beyond the age of majority.7 Recently, researchers have found that eighteen- to twenty-one-year-old adults are more like younger adolescents than older adults in their impulsivity under conditions of emotional arousal.8 It is also well established that young adults, like teenagers, engage in risky behavior, such as drinking, smoking, unsafe sex, drug use, and criminal activity, to a greater extent than older adults.9 The possibility that much risky behavior, including involvement in criminal activity, is a product of psychological and social immaturity raises the question of whether the presumption of reduced culpability and greater potential for reform should be applied to young adult offenders as well as juveniles.

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