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Why Juvenile Crimes Are Different
Defending Juveniles in Court in Colorado Means Understanding Them First

Anyone who has worked in the field of juvenile justice for a significant period of time knows that teenagers are less blameworthy than adults, and that their capacities change significantly over the course of adolescence.

Researchers from the MacArthur Foundation Research Network recognized that legal sanctions for misbehavior should not be based only on the harm a youth causes, but on the youth’s culpability.

However, every day different defendants receive different sentences even if they caused the same harm. This is because defendants differ in culpability, or blameworthiness. At no other time are these differences more pronounced than during adolescence, when youths struggle with their immaturity, undeveloped decision-making abilities, impulsiveness, lack of future orientation, and susceptibility to negative peer pressure.

Recent brain imaging technology reinforces the adolescent development literature. From the prefrontal cortex to the limbic area, the teenage brain is undergoing dramatic changes during adolescence in ways that affect teens’ ability to reason, to weigh consequences for their decisions, and to delay gratification long enough to make careful short- and long-term choices.

Rethinking Juvenile Justice

In their 2008 book Rethinking Juvenile Justice MacArthur researchers Dr. Laurence Steinberg and Elizabeth Scott concluded that young people under age 15 should never be tried as adults.

Steinberg and Scott make clear that mitigation because of youth–the fact that teens are less blameworthy than adults–is not the same as an excuse. That is, trying youths in juvenile court is not the same as absolving them of responsibility.

Ten years under juvenile court supervision, for an 11-year-old, is a very long time. The point is that while youths should be punished for their crimes, it should be done in a developmentally appropriate way. Any parent would know that it makes little sense to punish a 10-year-old the same as a 17-year-old.

What should we do with teenagers who commit crimes? Are they children whose offenses are the result of immaturity and circumstances, or are they in fact criminals?

“Adult time for adult crime” has been the justice system’s mantra for the last twenty years. But locking up so many young people puts a strain on state budgets–and ironically, the evidence suggests it ultimately increases crime.

A Distinctive State of Cognitive and Emotional Development

In their bold book, Elizabeth Scott and Laurence Steinberg, two leading scholars in law and adolescent development, offer a comprehensive and pragmatic way forward. They argue that juvenile justice should be grounded in the best available psychological science, which shows that adolescence is a distinctive state of cognitive and emotional development. Although adolescents are not children, they are also not fully responsible adults.

Elizabeth Scott and Laurence Steinberg outline a new developmental model of juvenile justice that recognizes adolescents’ immaturity but also holds them accountable. Developmentally based laws and policies would make it possible for young people who have committed crimes to grow into responsible adults, rather than career criminals, and would lighten the present burden on the legal and prison systems. In the end, this model would better serve the interests of justice, and it would also be less wasteful of money and lives than the harsh and ineffective policies of the last generation.

Two important issues of juvenile justice policy are re-thought in light of the empirical research on adolescence. The first issue is whether adolescents deserve a separate niche of procedures and sanctions, rather than being lumped in with younger delinquent children in the juvenile court, or at the opposite extreme, subjected to the same processing as are adults in the criminal justice system.

Although not excused by lack of mental development or moral awareness, does the diminished cognitive capability and moral immaturity of most adolescents suggest that they are less culpable and hence, their punishment should be lighter than that meted out to an adult offender? The second issue, the more complex in terms of implementing policy, is how diminished cognitive understanding that affects substantial numbers of adolescents is to be taken into account by a justice system that insists that an accused understand the adversarial process and participate in the development of his or her defense.

The founders of the juvenile court system were convinced that delinquents were children in need of protection, not so dissimilar from abused and neglected children. During the past 20 years, as Scott and Steinberg properly note, there has been a collapse of the philosophical underpinnings of the juvenile courts when public clamor demanded that something be done about the apparent significant increase in violent juvenile crime.

Research has demonstrated that the juvenile crime incidence in the 1990s did not significantly expand, but such voices did not quell the wave of fear. Even some juvenile justice experts abandoned traditional beliefs that almost all offenders could be rehabilitated with supportive supervision, and that retribution and punishment were inappropriate reasons for intervention. In view of what was touted as a burgeoning crop of “super-predators,” critics sought punitive revisions, and legislatures responded by diminishing the juvenile court’s jurisdiction and moving public safety to a prominent place in the listing of its purposes.

Adolescents Are Neither Children Nor Adults

The traditional binary categorization of “children” and “adults” ignores the developmental reality that adolescence does not easily fit in either group. Adolescence is characterized by a unique set of features, including problematic attributes of immature judgment, impulsiveness, experimentation and present indulgence that are often hallmarks of criminality. Like Goldilock’s choices, appropriate sanctions for adolescent offenders should avoid the too-soft sanctions applied to very young miscreants as well as the too harsh penalties imposed on adult criminal.

This insight was clearly embraced by the Supreme Court when, in Roper V. Simmons (2002), it declared that the use of the death penalty for offenders under the age of eighteen constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The same argument calls into question whether a punitive sanction for a sixteen-year-old who is a violent aggressor or a habitual offender is appropriate for the disposition of a twelve-year-old, first offense burglar. The authors state that they provide a social welfare analysis of youth crime policy and replace the traditionally exclusive goal of fairness and rehabilitation of young offenders with a politically more promising goal of the prevention of crime at the least cost to society.

They urge the replacement of the “rehabilitative” model of the juvenile court with a “developmental” model that takes into account society’s legitimate concerns about public safety and accountability. Borrowing from the concept of mitigation in criminal law, Scott and Steinberg suggest that an adolescent who commits a crime should neither be excused nor held fully responsible for the offense.

Adolescence is a time of diminished decision-making capability and susceptibility to suggestion and herd behavior, classic characteristics justifying mitigation of punishment.

Editors note: This excellent book will assist criminal defense lawyers throughout the world support that juveniles are different and should be treated differently than adults at every level.

Those of us who practice daily, see it in their faces. We know it to be true. Now there is scientific support for our courtroom arguments.


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___________________________
H. Michael Steinberg Esq.
Attorney and Counselor at Law
The Colorado Criminal Defense Law Firm of H. Michael Steinberg
A Denver, Colorado Lawyer Focused Exclusively On
Colorado Criminal Law For Over 30 Years.
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