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Juvenile brain development and the justice system

In our November 20 post, we wrote about how St. Louis authorities are trying to respond to the challenge of crimes committed by juveniles. This is a particular concern in cases of violent crimes committed by teenagers - of which there have been several recently in the St. Louis area.

In order for society to respond appropriately to such offenses, it is important for the justice system to recognize the role that brain development plays in juvenile behavior. To put it fairly simply, the brain of adolescents are still developing. The ability to truly understand consequences and intelligently assess risks is just not in place yet, compared to the adult brain.

This doesn't mean that kids who commit terrible acts shouldn't be held accountable. But lengthy punishment in an adult prison does not really fit the crime, when the nature of the brain of the person who committed it as a juvenile was not fully developed.

Scientific research has increasingly shown in recent years that juveniles' brains have significantly less capacity to put the brakes on impulsive behavior than adults do. That capacity is still developing in juveniles, even as their propensity to engage in risky behavior is stimulated by the hormonal changes of early adolescence.

In short, juveniles' brains are hardwired to seek excitement and act on impulses. But those same brains have weak brakes for preventing destructive behavior.

To be a little more technical about it, the prefrontal cortex of brain is still developing in juveniles. This is the part of the brain that plays a key role in making judgments and controlling impulses.

Once their brains are fully developed, most kids who got in trouble with the law will be able to make better choices. Indeed, statistics show that about ninety percent of kids who commit offenses as juveniles do not continue to do so as adults.

Source: "6 facts about crime and the adolescent brain," MPR News, Emily Kaiser, 11-15-12

Our firm handles situations similar to those discussed in this post. To learn more about our practice, please visit our St. Louis juvenile defense page.

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