On transitional-aged youth: Of brain science and juvenile justice


An image of adolescence (Photo credit: dongdawei)

This is the second post in a series exploring the social policy and human services needs of transitional-aged youth.  You can see the other two posts in this series by clicking here.

As a social worker practicing in a South Bronx criminal defense law office, I often felt that the youth I helped to represent  were unjustly served by the “adult” system they were prosecuted in. During the 1990s, almost every state in the nation paved the way for youth aged circa 15-17 who would otherwise be tried as juveniles to be “transferred” to the adult criminal justice system.

Although my clients were sometimes tall and filled-out with fully-formed attitudes, their bouncing, goofy demeanor would often surface within moments, rendering the physical trappings of adulthood useless.  On my last day with The Bronx Defenders, tears fled my eyes as I watched a particularly young and bouncy client with doe eyes being led back to the Rikers Island jail – where she would soon be packaged up and shipped out to an adult prison for the duration of her 10-year sentence for a first-time non-violent drug offense.

There is no question that I was burned out – but I found my passion for the work again once ensconced in a doctoral program where I soon became exposed to research that led me to conclude that much of juvenile justice policy is not rooted in the existing scientific evidence.

Here is what we know about adolescents and brain development.  While typically-developing adolescents aged fifteen and up are often as capable as adults in focused decision-making situations (this is sometimes referred to as “cold cognition”), impulsive and short-sighted judgment can by impacted by both psychological and cognitive factors (this is sometimes referred to as “hot cognition”).  What this means is that in emotionally-heavy or charged situations, the parts of the brain that regulate emotion (versus reasoning) may be more more likely to be engaged.  Couple this with the presence of what is often an under-developed sense of responsibility and, well, Houston, we have a problem.

Explained in more scientific parlance, Nitin Gogtay et alia (2004) explain this phenomenon as follows: “the prefrontal cortex of the brain is crucial for weighing risk vs. reward, future planning, impulse control, and is critical for a person to be able to make rational decisions” yet the science supports the fact that this is one of the last parts of the brain to fully mature by late adolescence.

It is for this reason that I have happily participated in the movement to recognize that adult treatments, services and social welfare systems may not always be right for adolescents.  Although this harkens back to Jane Addams 1899 fight for the development of the juvenile court in the first place, in response to the at-the-time new notion that youth were not, in fact, “little adults,” it behooves us to recognize the following (reprinted from the Campaign for youth Justice): engaging in reckless behavior is often normative, it is harder for adolescents to engage in self control is often more difficult than it is for adults and in choice-making, adolescents may be more likely to prioritize rewards over risks at key junctures – especially with respect to considering long-term consequences.  Given this knowledge, once again a re-consideration of the juvenile “transfer” process is warranted – especially in recognition of the “transitional-aged youth” concept.

What do YOU think?

This blog post is part of an ongoing series by Dr. Elspeth Slayter, who is exploring current national social welfare services conversations about “transitional-aged youth” given the changing nature of how we understand adolescence and early adulthood as well as the policies, programs, and systems that support this population.