OP-ED: Young People’s Brain Development Gives Us Window for Change

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Marc SchindlerWe know more today than ever before about what makes young people tick. The field of juvenile justice has benefited from a wealth of serious research on adolescent development and brain science, in part thanks to the groundbreaking scholarship from the MacArthur Foundation’s Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice, which began in 1997.

And during this week’s ninth annual MacArthur Models for Change conference, it was clear that this information and the initiative’s work have influenced how we talk and think about young people and juvenile justice.

There has been much progress in juvenile justice reform over the past decade, including 45 percent fewer young people confined and policy changes in 24 states to reduce the number of youths transferred to adult court or housed in adult facilities.

However, clearly we still have a long way to go in translating this research into practice.

During the Models for Change powerful closing keynote presentation from Dr. Laurence Steinberg, juvenile justice leaders and practitioners were rightly charged with this challenge: All facets of justice policies and practices need to account for the critical window of opportunity — and vulnerability — of adolescent brain development.

Dr. Steinberg, who led the MacArthur Research Network for more than a decade and recently published “Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence,” reminds us that adolescence, the last developmental moment of brain plasticity, is our best chance to help shape positive outcomes for youth.

This message is echoed by two important reports from the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academies of Science. The NRC reports, which also look at adolescent development and juvenile justice, lay out a blueprint for the field and the federal government that includes developmentally appropriate practices: “developmental model of juvenile justice rejects many of the punitive law reforms of the late 20th century as often excessively harsh and therefore unfair to young offenders and as likely to increase rather than decrease the threat to public safety. … Indeed, the evidence suggests incarceration likely increased the risk of recidivism for many youth.”

To date, most of the knowledge of brain science has been applied to juvenile justice in the context of diminished culpability. This has had enormous impact, specifically in influencing the Supreme Court's string of decisions on the juvenile death penalty and juvenile life without parole. The court relied on research showing that youth are less culpable than adults and therefore should not be subject to the same harsh treatment as adults, at least not without additional due process protections.

However, an underlying implication of the “diminished culpability” argument has been the presumption that youth are essentially unformed and deficient adults.

But Dr. Steinberg points out the other side of the coin: Adolescence presents a time of great opportunity, when the changing young brain can be a true asset. The period of brain plasticity occurs at the same time that a young person’s identity is developing. This presents an opportunity to promote positive development in ways that will reduce the likelihood of committing new offenses or engaging in risky behavior. The marriage of adolescent brain development research and positive youth development approaches is much needed.

On the other hand, the research also makes clear that we must do everything possible to reduce young people’s experiences of harm. The malleable young brain makes young people extremely vulnerable to the kinds of negative or traumatic experiences that can occur in confinement, and can have lifelong implications for both individuals and society.

Presentations and discussion at the Models for Change conference reminded us where our current practices are in conflict with what we know about adolescent brain development; for example in the use of solitary confinement and indiscriminate shackling of youth.

Rather than continuing to rely on expensive and harmful secure confinement as a first response to youthful behavior, we should invest in community-based solutions to serve most justice-involved youth.

Instead, we need to utilize validated risk assessments and screening tools so that only the small number of highest-risk youth are placed in secure confinement, and then only for the shortest amount of time consistent with their needs and risk. Limiting incarceration will allow us to more appropriately target the intensive resources associated with confinement, mitigate the harmful side effects of incarceration, and free up necessary resources for youth who can be safely and successfully supported in the community.

Most importantly, this approach allows for a much-needed shifting of resources away from incarceration and toward the types of positive supports and opportunities that all youth need, such as quality education, behavioral health services, workforce development and recreation, among others.

As the Justice Policy Institute’s recent report “Sticker Shock” shows, we all pay for the lifelong consequences related to youth confinement, to the tune of an estimated $8 billion to $21 billion each year. This is in addition to an average of almost $150,000 a year per youth that states spend on direct costs to incarcerate a youth. Clearly we can and must do better when making decisions on where to invest resources.

The research tells us what parents of young adults have long known: that an early-20-something is more like a 15-year-old than a 35-year-old. Since the brain is developmentally malleable and more open to change until about 24, I would extend Dr. Steinberg’s challenge to both the juvenile and adult justice systems: We need to embrace developmentally appropriate responses to all justice-involved young people, including young adults in the criminal justice system.

With more than 200,000 18- to 24-year-olds serving a sentence of a year or more in state and federal prisons, and another 100,000 or more likely incarcerated in local jails, imagine the widespread implications that more developmentally appropriate practices would have for young adults in the criminal justice system.

Finally, we should also heed the advice of a number of Champions for Change who were honored at the conference. Hernan Carvente, a young man who has overcome a serious record to be a powerful voice for youth, reminded us to work to promote transformation and positive outcomes with all youth, including those charged with the most serious offenses. In fact, these are exactly the youth who can benefit the most from our best practices.

And we should never forget that these policies and practices don’t affect all youth equally. Youth of color are impacted disproportionately and treated more harshly at every point of our justice system.

We should join with the chorus of voices around the country calling for justice systems that treat all youth fairly. As Judge George Timberlake, another MacArthur Champion for Change, shouted in his call for fairness and equity: #blacklivesmatter!

Marc Schindler is the executive director of the Justice Policy Institute.

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