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Adolescent Brain Development
Judicial, legal, law enforcement, justice, social service and school professionals working with youth alleged to have committed status offenses and their families should understand and apply current and emerging scientific knowledge about adolescent development, particularly as it relates to court-involved youth. Advances in brain science and technology are helping us better understand how the adolescent brain functions. We now know that young people’s brains continue to mature until their early- to mid-20s, and adolescents’ brains are different from adults’ both structurally and in how they are influenced by chemicals produced by the body, such as dopamine.1 Adolescents are more likely to be influenced by peers, engage in risky and impulsive behaviors, experience mood swings, or have reactions that are stronger or weaker than a situation warrants.2 These differences do not mean that youth behavior that is harmful to themselves or others should be ignored. Rather, it means that courts, agencies and practitioners should use this knowledge to inform and perhaps modify their practices and policies.
Adolescents are more likely to be influenced by peers, engage in risky and impulsive behaviors, experience mood swings, or have reactions that are stronger or weaker than a situation warrants.
The U.S. Supreme Court has acknowledged the differences in youth brain development and culpability in several recent decisions that strike down extreme sentencing for court-involved youth.3 Still, many juvenile and family courts are not entirely familiar with the relevant science and research that underlie the Court's conclusions. Consequently, these juvenile and family courts are not yet fully using available research to guide decision-making. Professionals and systems need to educate themselves about the inherently different ways youth understand and react to the world around them, and use such knowledge to inform system responses to youth in need and youth alleged to have committed status offenses. Potential changes include providing guidance and structure to youth and their families, and recognizing that adolescents will still sometimes make poor decisions and it is the adult caregiver’s and system’s role to help them recover from mistakes and make better decisions.4 See Section 1.2 to learn more about adolescent brain development.
This page was adapted from Section 1.2 of the National Care of Youth Charged with Status Offenses.
1 These recommendations are adapted from Coalition for Juvenile Justice. (2006) “Applying Research to Practice Brief: What Are the Implications of Adolescent Brain Development for Juvenile Justice?" Available at http://www.juvjustice.org/media/resources/public/resource_138.pdf.
3 See Roper v. Simmons, 542 U.S. 551 (2005) (regarding the juvenile death penalty) and Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010) (regarding life without parole for juveniles).
4 See Coalition for Juvenile Justice (2006) "Emerging Concepts Brief: What Are the Implications of Adolescent Brain Development for Juvenile Justice?" (pgs. 4-8). Available at: http://www.juvjustice.org/media/resources/public/resource_134.pdf.