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Moral and legal culpability of adolescent criminals

The existence of a separate justice system separate from adult criminal justice system is predicated on two fundamental assumptions about adolescents: “(1) that they less capable of mature judgement than adults and are therefore less culpable for any offences that they commit; and (2) that they are more amenable to treatment than adults, and therefore are more likely to profit from rehabilitation” (Cauffman & Steinberg, 2000). In order to have a fair criminal system we must assess these fundamental assumptions.

Maturity of the brain develops throughout the lifespan, so when we assess whether a person is capable of mature judgement it doesn’t mean to suggest the end of development but rather the becoming of adult-like capabilities. Therefore we can treat the person as capable of weighing risks, planning ahead and having better control of their emotions and temperament, as well as being less influenced by social pressures such as family influence and peer pressure. Difference in maturity between children and adolescents is more noticeable due to the clear physical and cognitive capacity difference shown; however distinction between adolescents and adults can be less observable, as adolescents can show physical and mental maturity similar to that of an adult. The disparity in maturity being less clear as adolescents go through a transitional stage developing adult-like qualities at different times during adolescence.

In England, at 18 years of age, adolescents are given the right to certain privileges such as drinking alcohol; therefore the government sees them as mature enough to control what they consume. 18 is also the age in which a person has the right to vote and is seen as a landmark age of maturity and the beginning of adulthood, but until a person reaches 20 they are still regarded an adolescent. For different cultures the perceived age of the beginning of adulthood varies, but most see the young as less responsible for their actions and are less harshly treated. The prison system in England, looks leniently on young offenders and they are separated from other prisoners until they reach twenty years of age but in some cases there has been pressure to give harsher sentences and for the young offenders to take more culpability for their actions. This in particular for violent crime such as gross bodily harm and murder. Most famously in the James Bulger case where there was public uproar when the convicted were sentenced to only 8 years imprisonment compared to the normal minimum 15 years life sentence.

The key area of development in the brain during adolescence is the prefrontal cortex in the frontal lobe. Much previous research has linked this area with advanced cognition in the brain such as prioritizing thoughts, dealing with emotion, controlling impulses and thinking ahead to the consequences of our actions. During adolescence the human brain goes through much growth and pruning in this region. Neurological studies have looked at which structures experience this growth and pruning to understand how the brain develops and how people mature with their thought processes. It is logical to assume that before a person can easily control impulses and anticipate consequences they may make decisions a mature brain would not make, and subsequently may be more likely to commit crime, particularly crime that isn’t planned. During pre-adolescence there is a steady increase in grey matter which is likely reflexive of the increase in neurons and synapses. The excess synapses are pruned during adolescence where grey matter is shown to decrease. MRI studies have shown that this decrease in grey matter is age related; perhaps the best evidence comes from longitudinal MRI studies. Griedd et al (1999) found non-linear changes in grey matter throughout childhood and adolescence, sampling an age group ranging from about 4 to 21 years. The pattern of development of grey matter in the frontal lobe followed an inverted U shape, where there was a period of progression of grey matter during preadolescence peaking around 12 years, and then regression during adolescence. This pruning of grey matter has since been shown to continue post adolescence in further studies, showing grey matter density decreasing well into adulthood to about 60 years, with little or no decline afterwards (Sowell et al, 2003). Different areas of the brain show either increase or decreases in grey matter; however there is an overall decline in grey matter density, as well as an overall decline in grey matter density in the frontal lobes. The behavioural implications of decrease in grey matter rely on our knowledge of the frontal lobes having a major role in advanced cognition. Executive function is believed to be a cognitive ability that is related to activity in the frontal lobes. The capacity to control our impulses and behaviours including skills such as working memory, advanced decision making, attention and voluntary response inhibition are our executive function. Luna et al (2004) tested participants on executive functioning such as inhibitory control and processing speed using oculomotor tasks. Adolescents and adults performed significantly better than pre-adolescents. There was little difference between the performances of adolescents and adults. MRI scans indicated that brain activation in the frontal regions increased progressively from childhood to adulthood. It is believed that the elimination of unwanted neural connection and synapses, allows for better executive functioning with these cognitive skills. Whereas some aspects of executive functioning improve preadolescence, some continue to improve throughout adolescence and early adulthood.

Synaptic pruning in the prefrontal cortex happens mainly during early adolescence and thus basic information processing and logical reasoning skills have shown to increase at this time also (Overton, 1990; Keating, 2004). This evidence is partially what helped early adolescents legally make decisions such as having an abortion without having to inform their parents. Some psychologists argue that as these cognitive capabilities are seen to improve by a degree comparable to an adult, and adolescence can make decisions such as terminating a pregnancy then they are as culpable for making decisions that lead to committing crime. The U.S. Supreme court made a landmark ruling in 2005 abolishing the juvenile death penalty (Roper V. Simmons, 2005), this on the surface seemed to contradict research previously mentioned that showed adolescents had adult-like cognitive skills. Previously in a Supreme Court case, Hodgson v. Minnesota (1990) court case, The American Psychological Association (APA) argued that adolescents had adult-like decision making skills meaning that there was no reason to require teenagers to notify their parents before terminating a pregnancy. In the Roper V. Simmons court case the APA argued however that adolescents often make “impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions” due to a “lack of maturity”...”found in youth more often than in adults”. (Steinberg, 2009b) Although this seems a contradictory stance its important to remember that structural changes of the brain happen independently of each other therefore certain maturity or adult-like characteristics can be developed at different stages in a lifespan.

This pruning happens mainly during early adolescence, this is accompanied by myelination; this is the process where fatty tissue develops, sheathing nerve fibres, acting as insulation for improved and faster connectivity within the prefrontal cortex. This process is ongoing perhaps well into early adulthood and beyond. Giorgio et al (2008; 2009) found that white matter and fractional anisotropy (an index of white matter structure) increased at the same time that grey matter exhibits synaptic pruning. Therefore increased white matter has also been linked to improved executive functioning and cognitive capacity in the brain. White matter volume after adolescence continues to increase between 19 and 40 years, after which it steadily declines (Sowell et al, 2003). Although adolescence can display moral and logical reasoning at this stage, myelination an important process in making the brain’s circuitry more precise and efficient continues long after adolescence. Improved connectivity within the prefrontal cortex is important for many aspects of executive function, such as planning ahead, weighing risks and rewards, and the simultaneous consideration of multiple sources of information.

Much adolescent dominated crime such as joy riding, defacing of public property and trivial theft, seems to offer little future benefits or improvements to the offender’s life. However during adolescence there is an increased sensitivity and efficiency in dopaminergic activity that could have an effect on thrill seeking activities. Potentially rewarding activities could be seen as more rewarding and less consideration given to potential costs. Increased risk taking could be the result of an easily aroused reward system or immature self-regulatory system. These systems may due to increased activity within the dopamine system as dopamine decreases the voltage threshold required for cell firing in pyramidal cells, so that adolescence may have increased excitability of the neural networks (Wahlstrom et al, 2009). The dopamine system during adolescence undergoes significant changes including dopamine concentrations being highest in the prefrontal cortex during adolescence. The increased incentive-reward motivation that is observed during adolescence coherers with models of behaviour that show existence of a dopamine-modulated neurobehavioral system that controls incentive-driven behaviour (Wahlstrom et al, 2009). This can easily be related to how adolescent crime is often unplanned and decided on impulse (Farrington, 2003).

Although late adolescents in court may seem to display maturity in reasoning and language skills, recent research suggests cognition may develop at a different rate to psychosocial maturity. Steinberg et al (2009a) tested participants ranging from the age of 10 to 30, and assessed them on cognitive capacity such as working memory and verbal fluency, and psychosocial maturity. Psychosocial maturity was assessed using 5 measures: risk perception, sensation seeking, impulsivity, resistance to peer influence and future orientation. The last two measures were new self-report measures whereas the first three measures were existing measures adapted for this work. No significant differences were found in psychosocial maturity between the first four age groups (10-11, 12-13, 14-15, and 16-17 years) but significant differences were found between the 16-17 year olds and the those 22 and older, and between the 18-21 year olds and those 26 and older. This shows very late development in psychosocial maturity. In comparison in the same experiment age differences in cognitive capacity were apparent during the first part of adolescence but not after 16. This is an opposite of the pattern seen with psychosocial maturity. These results show that although maturity can be seen in an adolescent with regards to cognitive ability this does not mean maturity of the brain comparable to that of an adult.

Most biological research looks at adolescents as in a transitional stage of maturity, not looking to pinpoint an exact stage of adulthood but rather looking at the development of the brain in different areas at different times. Maturity in one area of the brain can be shown to happen many years before maturity in other areas of the brain, and some areas of the brain continuing to develop many years post-adolescence. In this essay it is argued that its impossible to draw a line where adolescence ends and adulthood begins therefore it is important that adolescent crime is treated as committed by a person or persons of possible immaturity, and therefore less likely culpable of their actions than a mature mentally healthy adult. Biological research of the brain although not without subjectivity and guess work, cannot be ignored as it shows much change in the physiology of the brain during adolescence and clear differences between adolescence and early adulthood. Although neuroimaging research has been prominent in biological research recently it is still in many respects in its infancy. Neuroimaging studies are limited as they involve an element of subjectivity, as investigators make choice about thickness of brain slices, level of clarity and detail (Jonson et al, 2009) . They do not show an exact chronological age for maturity, and when a person develops maturity varies from person to person. Not much is known about the exact underline biology of cognitive processes but enough evidence from biological research into the brain suggests that the prefrontal cortex is activated for advanced cognition and also undergoes many structure changes during adolescence. It can be argued that as every behaviour has neurological underpinnings adolescents are still culpable for their actions; however although adolescents are still responsible it is unjust if their age of development isn’t considered when punishment is dealt.

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