I don’t need adolescent brain research to inform me that teenagers are neurologically wired to do stupid things.
I was a teenager. I did stupid things, and many involved breaking the law.
And yes, I am one of those keynoters during a conference who ask for a show of hands if they committed a crime when a teenager.
Because I enjoy watching three-quarters of the audience raise their hands (which include judges, lawyers and Ph.D.s), and I enjoy telling the other quarter they’re lying or were one of those kids I didn’t hang out with in high school because they were boring.
The fact that most crimes occur during our teenage years is not a demeaning indictment that our 60 million youth are criminals. Just because kids are prone to risk-taking behaviors doesn’t make them criminals, it makes them kids.
What is demeaning of teenagers is when we have greater expectations of them and demand faster responses in dysfunctional ways that involve juvenile and criminal sentencing.
When I did criminal defense work as a lawyer and represented kids in juvenile court, or in adult court on an automatic transfer case, it was well before all the brouhaha of adolescent brain research. I didn’t have anything scientific to point to in my efforts to convince a prosecutor or judge that my client’s immaturity was a contributing factor of his mischief and was deserving of a diversion program, or to make the argument that detention is not a place to teach kids to grow up and act more mature.
But I did have my experience as a teenager, and I was quick to ask the judge and prosecutor the rhetorical question, “Were you an angel growing up?”
In the ’90s, I was fighting as a defender an onslaught of kids arrested on misdemeanor or low-level felonious acts. That resulted from trendy zero tolerance school policies as well as a get tough bent to clean up neighborhoods using an approach called “broken windows,” a metaphor used to describe the link between disorder within a community to subsequent occurrences of serious crime. I was suddenly defending a slew of kids on minor offenses including criminal trespass, loitering and prowling, and curfew.
The overzealous use of police to arrest kids wandering and loitering about neighborhoods in the attempt to prevent vandalism (i.e. broken windows) overlooks on one hand that kids tend to wander and loiter about while not harboring any criminal bent of mind, and the wandering and loitering becomes more frequent in neighborhoods that don’t offer after-school and weekend activities for kids.
These offenses did not compromise public safety, but you wouldn’t know it by how these kids were treated. It was as if we had completely lost touch with our own memories of growing up as teenagers or being parents raising teenagers. Most of these cases I defended were dismissed or were acquitted because the police sweeps were just that — sweeps. More weight was placed on sweeping up kids than on the proof required to show their culpability to commit crimes. Most of these kids were having teenage fun and frolicking about.
Overzealous approaches tend to put the cart before the horse, and that damn Constitution tends to get in the way of such aggressive “broken window” practices.
So what if a bunch of kids skipping school are found in a vacant house with broken windows? Sure, we need to do something, but that something should be a measured response that takes into consideration that these are kids still under neurological construction and that handcuffing them and placing them in a criminogenic environment is not a smart move for a still maturing brain.
I had already taken the bench when the brouhaha of teenage brain science hit the scene. I recall the relief it gave me to battle back the get tough policies, rally community support for more diversion programs and create the school-justice partnership model to dismantle arbitrary zero tolerance policies.
Now is the moment to make one thing perfectly clear: The teen brain science doesn’t explain the behaviors of those fewer kids who commit serious violent felonies resulting in serious injury or death, or have delved into a pattern of felonious crimes. The underlying causes of serious delinquent youth is far more complex, but suffice it to say that regardless of what drives our youth into serious and persistent criminal activities, teen brain science remains a factor in the discussion of sentencing.
Just as the role of adolescent brain research serves to help policymakers and judges to avoid harsher treatment of low-risk kids at the front end, it also serves to protect kids from death row at the other end. I seriously doubt any kid presently serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole gives a damn if they are characterized as “neurologically wired to do stupid things” if it can be used to mitigate their sentence and give them a chance for parole.
And gee whiz, that’s exactly what happened. The U.S. Supreme Court adopted the teen brain science and made it illegal to execute kids and imprison them for life without the possibility of parole. I don’t hear any of those kids complaining about how those decisions and the rationale behind them have demeaned them.
Those of us working at ground zero are fully aware that teenagers possess great intellectual, creative and emotional capacities. We are the first to point to Mark Zuckerberg, who created Facebook before he turned 20, to Taylor Swift, who left home at age 14 to head to Nashville to start a music career, and to a 16-year-old named Albert Einstein whose brain had started to generate the laws of relativity.
We are not stupid. We are practitioners working every day, boots on the ground, helping kids deal with their trauma and working to save them from the stupidity of adults who believe they should be treated like adults. If the teen brain science can help us, and it has, we really don’t care if it demeans kids because they don’t care either.
Notwithstanding the brilliance of the teenage brain, they will never earn the privilege to drink alcohol, gamble or marry without parental consent or court order, to name a few restrictions, because they don't have maturity and experience. And for those very limited privileges extended to teenagers beginning at age 16 or 18, they are constantly under scrutiny by policymakers.
But it’s time for a change-up pitch. The relevance of the teen brain science is limited to what we in the law call “mitigation” in sentencing, and in understanding how to appropriately treat delinquent youth. While adolescent brain research serves a vital purpose in juvenile justice to teach jurists, practitioners and legislators that it hurts kids to criminalize their immaturity, it doesn’t fully explain why kids are committing the more serious public safety crimes.
Ignoring the relevance of teen brain science doesn’t help teens, but placing too much reliance on it to explain the causes of teen crimes is not helpful either. We will never make any inroads into delinquency prevention until we take serious steps to develop effective approaches that deliver appropriate skills to kids traumatized by the pains of poverty, and include their whole family.
This is not my first column regarding the causal connection between poverty and crime. In 2014, I wrote that, “Children in poverty are trapped in a maze, confused by the freedom to move about but limited by the walls that surround them. It is a paradox of freedom — the ability to be free, but in circumstances that limit opportunity.”
The limiting effects of poverty are astounding and extend well beyond the physiological needs of youth. Many youth who are delinquent suffer from home, food, clothing and safety insecurities that impact their neurological circuitry through persistent waves of adverse experiences associated with the conditions of poverty.
The bottom line: It doesn’t matter what you call it. Teen immaturity, inexperience or teen brain science, it is relevant to influence policies that avoid criminalizing teenage immaturity, but it’s not so relevant when considering what to do about those fewer kids who kill, maim and commit repeated serious and violent felonies.
The latter is a much deeper and complex issue driven by many factors that contribute to poverty in America.