A Temple University expert named Laurence Steinberg is convincingly advocating for reform of the juvenile justice system based on recent neurological research on adolescent brain development. His core argument is that young people who commit juvenile crime should be held accountable, but not necessarily in the ways the system attempts to do so currently.

Steinberg says that the level of control that adolescents have over their own thoughts and behaviors is less than the general public tends to believe. Their brains are still developing the skills necessary to appreciate risk, consequence and the concept of making mistakes.

Additionally, he says, adolescent brains essentially have weak braking systems. They seek pleasure, reward and instant gratification in such a way that perceiving consequences and properly appreciating them takes a long time to process. They therefore take more risks and act more on impulse than adults would by the very virtue of their brain chemistry.

It is also worth noting that adult guidance plays a pivotal role in helping teens understand what their actions truly mean, truly cost and how they can make different decisions than the ones that landed them in the system. As Steinberg has noted, “If we’re talking about a child who is at a stage of development where his own self-control is still immature and still developing, one thing that can help him is to have self-control imposed on him by other people. That’s a role parents play that helps protect their youngsters from engaging in risky and reckless behavior.”

When the juvenile justice system treats adolescents like adults, certain methods of punishment may either be lost on juveniles or may do more harm than good. Rather than holding juveniles accountable through disproportionate punishment and incarceration, it is worth rehabilitating them and training them. This will allow them to make different decisions in the future and prepare them for a more stable and law-abiding life when their brains fully mature.

Source: MPR News, “6 facts about crime and the adolescent brain,” Emily Kaiser, Nov. 15, 2012