Research and The Brain

Advocates against JLWOP have tried to bolster their case against incarceration for teen killers with various research. What we have seen is that, quite often, their information is wrong or misinterpreted. See our Myths and Facts page for more. Below are some important research sources to consider on the issue.

The Brain, Psychology, and Criminal Culpability: The Facts

Vital research on the often misunderstood issue of juvenile brain development is being misapplied by advocates who use it to excuse criminal behavior. This important scholarly neurological paper called “Brain Overclaim Syndrome” explains why the frontal lobe development research so often cited by offender advocates to excuse deadly and dangerous behavior actually cannot be properly used to reduce criminal culpability.

“Brains do not commit crimes – people do.”

This important article in the New York Times called “Brain On The Stand” provides significant insight into this complex issue.

Anti-JLWOP advocates working in legislatures and courts to end LWOP sentences for teen killers will produce testimony about brain development and the adolescent mind. We urge extreme caution in adopting everything they will say as solid evidence.  The fact is that when it comes to MRI imaging of the brain and the studies along these lines one can find an opinion to essentially match any argument either for or against it’s impact on criminal culpability.

We do not really need studies to tell us that teenagers generally act differently; that they are sometimes impulsive or don’t fully appreciate the risks they are taking as well as adults. This is commonly understood. They can be emotionally volatile or susceptible to peer pressure or stress. But so can many adults. We do not really need MRI’s to tell us this —–every parent knows this. We have known it for decades if not centuries.  That is NOT the issue.

We discuss the issue of where to draw the age lines on this section of the website.

There are many problems with the claim that typical teenage traits reduce culpability. First, the diminished capacities we typically see in juveniles are not rational impairments. They do not make teens less able to understand what they are doing when they commit serious crimes as explained in this law review article and this law review article. Second, not all juveniles are the same. While many are impulsive, reckless, and so on, many are not. Some juvenile criminals are the complete opposite and commit planned-out maturely executed crimes. So even if juvenile traits do generally reduce culpability, that would not mean that all juveniles are less culpable.

Adult age in many cultures in human history has been at the time of puberty. Many religions and cultures have ritual entries into adulthood at around age 13-14. Adolescence itself was entirely the invention of the Industrial Revolution where entry into the workforce was delayed by longer mandatory schooling in order to keep the younger workers requiring less pay from competing with the older workers in a factory, all while medical science led to longer lives.

Cognitive Psychologist pioneer Jean Piaget defines the age around 12 as when we acquire “formal operational thinking” – the most mature and abstract thinking stage of development. Formal operational thinking is the most advanced level attainable and it continues through adulthood. There is no further state of maturity in thinking that one can acquire other than formal operations, attained during puberty.

Of course we all develop our thinking over time. But culpability for actions, like human development, is on a spectrum:  some are further along than others and each person, throughout life, is highly individual. There are general trends around which most people cluster, and there are always a few outliers.

This is why many of us oppose mandatory prison sentencing, and instead only support mandatory minimums, because each crime case has such highly individualized conditions. Each criminal is different. Each situation is different. We should not judge based on arbitrary age but by the culpability and intent of the individual offender, no matter their age, especially once they have entered puberty. The law in every state in this nation already does this, and this is why prosecutors have and exercise significant discretion in how they charge each offense and offender. Judges should have some latitude in sentencing too, to deal with these individual factors.

Developmental Psychology is a large and diverse field. And no ONE aspect of human development is definitive.

Psychopathological studies and risk assessment science are incredibly important in helping us to identify and sort out among the offending populations who are capable of rehabilitation and are responsible re-entry to society, and who are not.

We are not only how we develop in our frontal lobes. We are not only our sexual or emotional or hormonal or cognitive development. We are not only the development exhibited in our moral reasoning. We are not only the psycho-social. We are a complicated combination of all those things and much more.

The frontal lobe research cited by anti-JLWOP advocates simply does NOT describe any factor that excuses criminal behavior. If it did, but for our frontal lobes, we would all be mass murderers. And of course we are not.

The relevant issue in considering vicious, heinous and premeditated crimes committed by teens is whether or not they had the ability to know what they were doing and that it was wrong to do it. Criminality and culpability is defined in law and in mental health as the ability to form intent.

The problem of teen violence is an American national epidemic. And while it is not unique to the United States, it is significantly worse here than anywhere else in the world. No other nation comes even close to the high number of teen killers that we do.

Our problems therefore can NOT be the brain, which are the same everywhere.

The USA has cultural factors, socio-economic issues, access to weapons, values systems, and views on violence that are unique to the USA. We have to own this problem – it is OUR problem.

We also emphasize that NOVJM has no interest in simply incarcerating every teen, or adult for that matter, that displays some incidents of violence or criminality. We strongly support the U.S. Juvenile Justice system as separate from the adult criminal justice system. We know that most teens commit minor crimes only, and can look forward to productive futures in which they have learned from their mistakes and become valuable members of our society. We are proud of this system – among the finest and most forward looking in the world, when considered on the whole to other nations.

Our juvenile justice system uses a wide variety of approaches, prevention, intervention, community based approaches. We all need to help youthful first offenders turn their lives around and give them the help they need. The USA incarcerates juvenile offenders for less time overall than does even Europe. But Europe and other parts of the world simply do NOT have this small, rare, thankfully exceptional group of premeditated killers in the teen age group that we do.

NOVJM is dedicated to preventing these crimes, and to protecting public safety when an offender of any age is shown to be horrifically violent.

The following quotations from experts in the brain are relevant:

  • Professor Stephen Morse of the University Of Pennsylvania Law School writes in Brain Overclaim Syndrome, an article debunking the use of neuroscience studies to excuse criminal conduct by teens, “Crimes
    committed impulsively, for example, are still committed consciously and
    intentionally. “ 
  • Dr. Jerome Kagan, renown Harvard developmental psychologist and 2010 Child Mind Institute Award Winner has stated – “The brain data don’t show that adolescents typically have reduced legal culpability for crimes.” 
  • Dr. Elizabeth Sowell, prominent brain development researcher from UCLA, says “The scientific data aren’t ready to be used by the judicial system.” 
  • Dr. BJ Casey, Director of the Sackler Institute of the Weill Medical college at Cornell University–“Brain science offers no simple take-home message about adolescents. “
  • Neuroscientist Bradley S. Peterson, Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City – “The ambiguities of science don’t mix well with the social and political causes.”

Remember, these teen murderers got to do one thing that their victims never got to do: the murderers made choices – the victims never had that chance.  None of these brain studies say teens lack the ability to determine right from wrong or make rational choices. Most seven year olds can tell you that it is wrong to kill and are able to mostly conform their behavior to what they know to be generally right and wrong.

Other Research Publications of Interest