The Juvenile Brain: Why Science, the Supreme Court Says Minors Should be Treated Differently

As his peers were entering their first year of high school, 14-year-old Adolfo Davis started serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Convicted of a double murder in 1990, Davis pled for clemency in front of Illinois’ Prisoner Review Board in April of 2012 – two months before the Supreme Court found that a sentence of mandatory life without parole for juveniles, even in the cases of homicide, amounted to cruel and usual punishment in the case of Miller v. Alabama.

Having waited since 2012 for Gov. Pat Quinn’s response to his plea, Davis’s case reentered the spotlight on Jan. 15 when the Illinois Supreme Court heard arguments over whether Davis should be considered for release based on Miller. A ruling to set the state law in Illinois, including applying Miller retroactively, is expected in the next six months.

Adolfo Davis, currently in custody at Stateville, is seeking retroactive application of Miller v. Alabama in his case.

Adolfo Davis, currently in custody at Stateville, is seeking retroactive application of Miller v. Alabama in his case.

One of the key deciding factors in Miller, as in the precedent cases the justices used to make their decision, was the neurological distinction between adolescents and adults. Multiple studies have shown that adolescents lag behind adults in frontal lobe development, and that puberty is a crucial time of growth in the area. The prefrontal cortex, which regulates aggression, abstract thinking and long-term planning, undergoes this type of critical growth during childhood and adolescence.

For Justice Elena Kagan, who wrote the opinion for Miller, these developmental disparities translate into reduced culpability for juvenile criminals who must be categorically distinguished from their adult counterparts when considering a sentence of life without parole.

Kagan cited previous opinions in which the court established that “children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing. Because juveniles have diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform… they are less deserving of the most severe punishments.”

According to adolescent psychologist Dr. Jenna Saul, this distinction is spot on.

“The most important thing to understand is that adolescents act from an emotional problem-solving stance and not a rational one,” Saul said. “We as adults tend to think of them as having better reasoning than younger children, but it’s still not at an adult level.” This disparity in reasoning explains the emotional and irrational actions and reactions typical of teenagers, Saul said.

The underdevelopment of the rational and regulatory frontal lobe during adolescence also leads to dependence on more primitive parts of the brain like the amygdala, which affects responses to fear and aggressive behavior.

“If you think about a normal teenager, this is why they tend to react more angrily when asked by their parents about things,” Saul said. “This happens because they still do not have fully optimized responses to social cues or facial expressions. They tend to think of people as more angry or hostile than they are… so even in a normal interaction, for a normal teenager, those sorts of interactions cause conflict where there shouldn’t be any.”

As for criminally convicted teens, being punished with life behind bars can make these problems worse.

“Anybody who is expected to go through [adolescent] development behind bars is being asked to develop in an adverse environment,” Saul said. “I would argue that to lock a person up for committing a crime in adolescence means you’ve chosen not to consider the neuroscience and you’ve placed a person in an environment that offers the least potential for positive adaptation.”

Members of the Illinois Supreme Court.

This potential for adaptation is key when considering rehabilitation policies, says Saul. “We know that the brain at any age is neuroplastic, it’s capable of tremendous change,” Saul said. “Because adolescence is such a tremendous time for neural change and adaptation, it also leaves kids really ready for us to do a lot of rehabilitative change were we can have a huge impact.”

In one of the precedent cases for Miller, the justices cited studies showing that “only a relatively small proportion of adolescents who engage in illegal activity develop entrenched patterns of problem behavior.”

Concluding that the juvenile’s character is inherently “less fixed” than the adult’s, the court argued that life without parole neglected the potential for juvenile rehabilitation.

In a system with comparatively regressive juvenile life without parole policies– where serving time serves as a criminal deterrent and punishment rather than a chance for rehabilitation– the future for most kids who grow up “in correction” is bleak, according to Saul.

In Davis’s case, however, Saul is impressed.

“From what I understand, he has tried to provide outreach and education to youth and has tried to make people understand the importance of policy, so what I think you’re seeing is him creating hope and optimism,” Saul said. “He’s demonstrating for us positive growth and a new understanding of the world despite being behind bars.”

For the Miller v Alabama decision, click here.

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