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Commentary

Adolescent Minds Are Blind to Consequences

April 09, 2001|KIM TAYLOR-THOMPSON | Kim Taylor-Thompson is an academic director at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law

Two years ago, the Columbine High School tragedy in Colorado left a bewildered nation asking bluntly what can be done when kids kill kids. Eleven states proposed bills to lower the age at which a youthful offender would be eligible for the death penalty.

But for all its superficial appeal, treating kids as adults ignores a crucial paradox. An adolescent's poor decision to engage in unlawful conduct is generically different from that of an adult.

Perhaps with reason, society presupposes that an adult who makes the decision to commit a crime weighs it against his or her values and options. We attribute the identical thought process to adolescents. This common conception of juvenile decision-making blurs a fundamental difference: The options that an adolescent perceives and acts upon are limited by developmental factors that change with maturity.

Adolescents don't think like adults. Just ask any parent. We don't let adolescents drive largely because kids perceive and calculate risk differently than do mature adults. We don't let adolescents enter into binding contracts because kids have difficulty contemplating the meaning of a consequence, particularly with respect to long-term implications. We don't let adolescents make major decisions without guidance because kids have less capacity to anticipate harm as an unintended result of their actions.

Adolescents tend to be less aware of--and less alert to--information, ordinarily using the little they do know less effectively. They fixate on some initial possibility and fail to adjust their decision-making as new information becomes available. Yet both the rhetoric and rules of modern politics assume that an adolescent's violent conduct somehow transforms him into an adult.

Strong as that assumption's grip may be, it is misleading. Cognitive and developmental psychologists confirm that adolescents display immature thought processes even late into their teenage years that may help to explain involvement in criminal activity. A recent report from the New York Academy of Science suggests an organic explanation: The prefrontal cortex of the brain--which enables us to anticipate the future rationally, to appreciate cause and effect and to control impulses--may not fully develop until we reach our 20s.

This is not meant to excuse adolescent conduct. Rather it suggests good news. In time and with guidance, adolescents will grow out of this. But given current trends in criminal justice policy, too many will find themselves confined in adult prisons just as they develop the maturity to control their behavior.

Let's be clear. The adult justice system does not adequately differentiate between adults and adolescents. When a teenager confronts charges in criminal court, he will not face a jury of his peers. Adults--most of whom have long since forgotten that they narrowly survived their own teenage years--will sit in judgment. We will judge that teenager according to standards of responsibility that do not even approximate his thought processes.

Courts routinely instruct jurors that they can presume that an individual "ordinarily intends the natural and probable consequences of his acts." But teenagers don't even think about the consequences that an adult would otherwise consider natural and probable. Adolescent decision-making bears little resemblance to the mental operation that adults and adult courts treat as typical.

On the second anniversary this month of the Columbine shootings, perhaps the best way to ensure our children's future safety is to confront the underlying causes of youth violence rather than trying to force adolescents into an ill-fitting adult paradigm. It is time to recognize that kids have unique needs and require unique justice.

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