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Adolescence is the stage that occurs between childhood and adulthood. This is the stage when puberty begins, approximately starting at the age of 12 through 18. These children, also known as adolescents or juveniles, at this point experience physical and hormonal changes to their body that results as, but not limited to, voice changes, hair growth, muscle development and height. During this period of change, juveniles also experience the need to be independent and be more interested and influenced by peer groups.
Juvenile delinquency is defined by Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary as the conduct by a juvenile characterized by antisocial behavior that is beyond parental control and therefore subject to legal action (2010). As stated in several studies, delinquency increases sharply within the age range of 12 to 14 years, and peaks between 17 and 19 years, then slowly decreases from then on (Ezinga, et al 2008). Although there are several theories that may explain the reason of juvenile delinquency, there is no concrete answer as to why delinquency is found in the early years of adolescence.
Juvenile delinquency elevated as a national problem in the 1950s that resulted in important decisions by the Supreme Court in the 1960s and seventies which addressed the rights of juveniles (Peak, 2006). A recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 banned the death penalty for offenders under the age of 18 years old. In the case of Roper v. Simmons, the case revolved around a 17 year old juvenile who murdered an elderly woman during the course of a burglary (Aronson, 2007). According Aronson, the key element of Simmons' defense was new brain imaging evidence that suggest the adolescent brain is not as development of that of adult's brain (2007).
According to Lawrence Kohlberg's theory of moral reasoning development, there are three levels of moral reasoning - pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional levels (Chen, 2007). The pre-conventional level is the avoidance of punishment and seeking domination. The conventional level is when individuals seek the approval of others by following the law and obligations, whereas the post-conventional level is the individual is the pursuance of impartial interests and establishing of self-chosen moral principles (Chen, 2007).
Moral reasoning is a well documented link associated with juvenile delinquent behavior. A study conducted by Kohlberg in 1984, show that juvenile delinquents have lower moral levels of reasoning compared to non-delinquent juveniles (Leenders, et al, 2005; Palmer, et al, 2001). Juvenile delinquents are alleged to functions at Kohlbergian Stage 1 and 2 (Immature Stages), than non-delinquents (Leenders, et al, 2005; Palmer, et al, 2001). Several studies show that there are links of low moral reasoning due to dysfunctional family life and parental education. Kohlberg and other researchers found that there are links of juvenile delinquency due to the consequence of being caught and being institutionalized. Juveniles reach low levels of moral competence as a regression effect due institutionalization (Brugman, et al, 2004). Moral competence is the highest stage of moral reasoning, whereas practical reasoning is what action a person would do in a certain situation and why. According to Kohlberg and his colleagues, both moral competence and the contextual moral atmosphere are important in predicting behavior (Brugman, et al, 2004). Brugman and Aleva in 2004 conducted a study of 64 male juveniles in a high-security detention center to determine whether the delay in moral competence is achieved due to the cause of the offense, institutionalization, or both, using 81 non-delinquent students for comparison. The researchers found that there is a low moral competence in the juvenile delinquents compared to the non-delinquents. However, the low level moral atmosphere was not found in the institution, and therefore was found that the low moral competence was found prior to the detention (e.g. after the commitment of the crime).
On the contrast,
A study conducted by Palmer and Hollin amongst high school students between the ages of 12 to 18 showed that the consistency of parenting discipline and moral reasoning
According to Kambam and Thompson, cognitive capacities shape the decision-making process and psychosocial immaturity may affect decision-making outcomes in more subtle, but not necessarily less important, ways by influencing values and preferences that impact cost-benefit analyses in making choices (2009).
As first defined by Festinger, cognitive dissonance is the inner state that comes forth as a result of inconsistencies between a person's actions, beliefs, attitudes or feelings (Leenders, et al, 2005). The more excessive the cognitive dissonance, an individual is more likely to reduce it by changing one's behavior and mind-set.
According to Lopez and Emmer, studies conducted by Moffitt in 1993 and him and his colleagues in 1996, propose that a sublet of life-course persistent offenders have neurological impairments predisposing them to information-processing problems that may in part explain their severe conduct disorder type behaviors (2000).
"Hot cognition" is defined as thinking under the influence of high levels of stimuli, arousal, and in situations with high emotions (Aronson, 2007; Kambam, et al, 2009). "Cold cognition" is defined as thinking in low levels of stimuli, arousal and situations of low emotions (Aronson, 2007; Kambam, et al, 2009).
In a study conducted by Steinberg (2008) state that:
Brain regions involved in the socio-emotional system include the limbic and paralimbic regions, particularly the amygdale, nucleus accumbens, orbitofrontal cortex, medial prefrontal cortex, and superior temporal sulcus. Steinberg postulates that developmental changes in brain dopaminergic systems during puberty, (e.g. the disappearance of dopamine autoreceptors in the prefrontal cortex) result in decreased inhibitory control of dopamine release. Because of the increased sensitivity of the dopaminergic system, stimuli that may not have been rewarding or reinforcing previously are more likely to become so during adolescence. The decline in risk-taking behaviors that occur during adolescence and adulthood is mainly the consequence of the continued development of the cognitive-control system, than the socio-emotional system.
In lay public terms, adolescents are more likely to engage in "hot cognition" or impulsive and risk-taking behaviors, due to their cognitive development (e.g. brain development). And although adolescents are more prone to acts of impulsivity, these behaviors are more likely to be increased by peer influences and are less likely to make sensible decisions under stressful situations.
The evidence in the Roper v. Simmons case, argued that the brain structure and function have not yet matured to the level found in a normal population of adults and that there are limited understanding when individuals cross the threshold of brain development when individuals know right from wrong and how to make sound decisions (Aronson, 2007). However, as pointed out by Aronson, since the brain continue to develop well into the thirties, when is the brain developed enough to justify a determination of full legal culpability of a crime (2007).
Leenders and Brugman's study on
Lopez interviewed 24 male juveniles in a residential treatment center and a halfway house to discover the reasons and components why juveniles commit crimes. The data collection was a one to one hour and a half recorded interview with each juvenile. The result of the study showed that there are three crime contexts; the emotion-driven assault, the belief-driven assault, and the mixed-motive mixed-crime contexts (Lopez, et al, 2000). The emotion-driven assaults were conducted as a way of the juvenile's coping mechanism. The belief-driven assaults were performed as a self-preservation (e.g. fighting). The mixed-motive mixed-crime was the results that did not fit the other contexts. Although there where contexts, there was no specific reason as to why juveniles committed the crimes.
Moral Reasoning vs. Cognitive Perspectives
Moral reasoning seem to be based on social learning, may it be through peer interactions or parental rearing. Cognitive perspectives lean towards the biological perspectives, that the brain has not reached the "normal" size that of an adult brain, and therefore could not make the same sound decisions of adults. However, as pointed out by Aronson and other biologists, the brain does not cease to grow until the age of thirty. Will it be safe to assume that deviating to crime during adolescence would be "okay" in society because the brain is still "growing"? With that assumption, the brain development perspective could open legal ramifications in criminal cases not only in juvenile delinquents, but also in the individual's twenties and thirties.
The ground theory conducted by Lopez, et al, to examine the justification of juvenile delinquent behaviors is subjective, at best. Lopez used a qualitative study, of which the researcher had interviewed twenty-four adolescent males in a residential treatment center and a halfway house, of both were referred by the Texas Youth Commission (Lopez, et al, 2000). Although the researcher used the ground theory methodology, a valid qualitative approach used for exploratory research, the researcher chose the participants by the level of rapport established by the researcher with the juveniles, verbal abilities, and willingness to disclose personal information. This procedure is skewed due to the predisposition of the researcher. There may be a race bias and/or personality conflict that is not addressed in the study and may have skewed the results of the study. By in large, the study did not demonstrate the reasons why juveniles did the crimes that they did, but only outlined three crime contexts.