National Academies Report Says Teen Neurology Should Shape Juvenile Justice Reform Efforts

brain scansA new report from the National Research Council suggests that juvenile justice reform efforts should be grounded in the emerging understanding of adolescent development.

Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach,” sponsored by the federal Department of Justice, draws strong connections between the neurological development of teens and their environmental influences as factors in juvenile delinquency.

“Adolescence is a distinct, yet transient, period of development between childhood and adulthood characterized by increased experimentation and risk-taking, a tendency to discount long-term consequences, and heightened sensitivity to peers and other social influences,” the report says.

The report continues: “Evidence of significant changes in brain structure and function during adolescence strongly suggests that these cognitive tendencies characteristic of adolescents are associated with biological immaturity of the brain and with an imbalance among developing brain systems.”

The study says that confinement deprives young people of the ability to develop critical thinking and decision-making skills, and argue that instead, “well-designed, community-based programs” would better serve juvenile offenders.

According to the authors of the report, “accountability practices” implemented in the adult court system should not be used as a model for juvenile justice, advocating the use of detention only when young people present a physical threat to themselves or others. Even in instances of violent crimes, researchers state that they do not believe that juveniles should be held in adult facilities, and encourage maintaining the confidentiality of juvenile records as a means of establishing more successful “transitions into adulthood” for young offenders.

The report also finds that minority youths are disproportionately represented in the nation’s juvenile justice system, generally receiving more severe sentences for committing many of the same offenses as Caucasian adolescents. Researchers also state that juvenile courts should make sure that young people are both competent enough to understand court proceedings and receive representation from well-trained counselors, adding that young people are more likely to accept responsibility for their actions when they perceive legal proceedings to be fair and understandable.

“Given current fiscal constraints, collaboration among federal agencies should also be geared toward pooling resources and simplifying processes for the delivery of support and services,” the report concludes. “Sustained progress toward formulating and implementing developmentally appropriate juvenile justice policies and practices will depend on the willingness of state, local and tribal juvenile justice policy makers and federal agencies to collaborate fully and share the responsibility for carrying out their important missions.”