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V. The Difference between Youth and Adults

It is axiomatic that children are in the process of growing up, both physically and mentally. Their forming identities make young offenders excellent candidates for rehabilitation—they are far more able than adults to learn new skills, find new values, and re-embark on a better, law-abiding life. Justice is best served when these rehabilitative principles, at the core of human rights standards, are at the heart of any punishments imposed on child offenders. Sentences must take into account both the gravity of the crime as well as the culpability or blameworthiness of the offender. The question of culpability is what separates children from adults. While children can commit acts as violent and deadly as those adults commit, their blameworthiness is different by virtue of their immaturity. Their punishment should acknowledge that substantial difference.

Children may know right from wrong: proponents of adult sentences for children correctly point out that most children, even a six-year-old, can parrot the phrase that it is “wrong” to kill, albeit often without any real understanding of what killing means or why it is wrong. But by virtue of their immaturity, children have less developed capacities than adults to control their impulses, to use reason to guide their behavior, and to think about the consequences of their conduct. They are, in short, still “growing up.” A sentence of life without parole negates that reality, treating child offenders as though their characters are already irrevocably set.

The Difference According to Psychology

Psychological research confirms what every parent knows: children, including teenagers, act more irrationally and immaturely than adults. According to many psychologists, adolescents are less able than adults to perceive and understand the long-term consequences of their acts, to think autonomously instead of bending to peer pressure or the influence of older friends and acquaintances, and to control their emotions and act rationally instead of impulsively. All of these tendencies affect a child’s ability to make reasoned decisions.

Psychologists have long attributed the differences between adults and children to either cognitive or psychosocial differences. Cognitive theories suggest that children simply think differently than adults, while psychosocial explanations propose that children lack social and emotional capabilities that are better developed in adults.77

Research has established that adolescent thinking is present-oriented and tends to either ignore or discount future outcomes and implications.78 At least one researcher has found that teenagers typically have a very short time-horizon, looking only a few days into the future when making decisions.79 Another study concluded that only 25 percent of tenth graders (whose average age is sixteen), compared to 42 percent of twelfth graders (whose average age is eighteen), considered the long-term consequences of important decisions.80 To the extent that adolescents do consider the implications of their acts, they emphasize short-term consequences, perceiving and weighing longer-term consequences to a lesser degree.81

Psychological research also consistently demonstrates that children have a greater tendency than adults to make decisions based on emotions, such as anger or fear, rather than logic and reason.82 Studies further confirm that stressful situations only heighten the risk that emotion, rather than rational thought, will guide the choices children make.83

In the most emotionally taxing circumstances, children are less able to use whatever high-level reasoning skills they may possess, meaning that even mature young people will often revert to more child-like and impulsive decision-making processes under extreme pressure.84

Gregory C., who was fifteen when he shot and killed a police officer who had pulled him over for speeding in a stolen car, described his state of mind at the time:

Text Box: Gregory C. is fourteen in this photo, and he was fifteen at his crime.
© 2005 Private.
A kid just does something—whether it’s an accident or intentional. I mean personally, me, I was fifteen years old . . . I didn’t know what I was doing. I was still a kid. . . . Kids do a lot of stupid things . . . The person I was when I was fifteen, I really didn’t have any morals, I didn’t even know who I was at that time. I hate to admit it, but I was real ignorant. 85

The Difference According to Neuroscience

Neuroscientists using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to study the brain are now providing a physiological explanation for the features of adolescence that developmental psychologists—as well as parents and teachers—have identified for years.86 These MRI studies reveal that children have physiologically less-developed means of controlling themselves.

Neuroscientists have produced MRI images of the anatomy and function of the brain at different ages and while an individual performs a range of tasks.87 They have uncovered striking differences between the brains of adolescents and those of adults. Much of this scientific research into the biological distinctions between adults and children reveals that these differences occur along an age continuum—they do not magically disappear at a given age—and the rate at which the adolescent brain acquires adult capabilities differs from individual to individual. Nevertheless, researchers have identified broad patterns of change in adolescents that begin with puberty and continue into young adulthood.

A key difference between adolescent and adult brains concerns the frontal lobe. The frontal lobe of teenagers is composed of different quantities and types of cell matter and has different neural features than the adult brain. Researchers have linked the frontal lobe (especially a part of the frontal lobe called the prefrontal cortex) to “regulating aggression, long-range planning, mental flexibility, abstract thinking, the capacity to hold in mind related pieces of information, and perhaps moral judgment.”88 In children, the frontal lobe has not developed sufficiently to perform these functions. Throughout puberty, the frontal lobe undergoes substantial transformations that increase the individual’s ability to undertake decision-making that projects into the future and to weigh rationally the consequences of a particular course of action.89

These cell and neural developments in the brain provide an anatomical basis for concluding that youth up to age eighteen are, on average, less responsible for criminal acts than adults. As Daniel Weinberger, director of the Clinical Brain Disorders Laboratory at the National Institutes of Health explains, the developed frontal lobe, including its prefrontal cortex, “allows us to act on the basis of reason. It can preclude an overwhelming tendency for action. . . . It also allows us to consciously control our tendency to have impulsive behavior.”90

Addressing youth violence, Weinberger explains:

I doubt that most school shooters intended to kill, in the adult sense of permanently ending a life and paying the consequences for the rest of their lives. Such intention would require a mature prefrontal cortex, which could anticipate the future and rationally appreciate cause and effect . . . The [juvenile] brain does not have the biological machinery to inhibit impulses in the service of long-term planning.91

In addition, because their frontal lobe functions poorly, adolescents tend to use a part of the brain called the amygdala during their decision-making.92 The amygdala is a locus for impulsive and aggressive behavior, and its dominance over the undeveloped frontal lobe makes adolescents “more prone to react with gut instincts.”93 In adult brains, the frontal lobe offers a check on the emotions and impulses originating from the amygdala.94 Reflecting on the dominance of the amygdala, Deborah Yurgelun-Todd of the Harvard Medical School concluded:

[A]dolescents are more prone to react with gut instinct when they process emotions but as they mature into early adulthood, they are able to temper their instinctive gut reaction response with rational, reasoned responses . . . Adult brains use the frontal lobe to rationalize or apply brakes to emotional responses. Adolescent brains are just beginning to develop that ability.95

Case Study: Alexis V.

Alexis V. was age fourteen both in this photo and when she committed her crime.
© 2005 Private.

Alexis V., a woman of mixed race imprisoned in Iowa, committed her crime when she was fourteen years old. She wrote: “My mother had me when she was eighteen years old, my grandparents didn’t like me because I was black. I was an abused child. . . I was abused physically and emotionally. My parents were both alcoholics. It was very hard for me growing up.” 96  

When her mother was interviewed for this report, she said that Alexis was: “[O]ne of those kids that always had to have attention. She was diagnosed with ADHD [attention-deficit / hyperactivity disorder]. But up until sixth grade she was an honor roll student. . . . I was drinking a lot at the time and I was in the streets quite a bit. She was one of those kids that wanted to do the piano lessons and baseball and all that—but we didn’t have the money. I drank up all the money . . . Well, she figured out a way to get those lessons. She told the teacher, “If I kept your car up could you give me lessons for free?”97

Alexis explained that she decided to “run away because I was getting beat by my mom and social services got involved but they didn’t do anything.” From the age of twelve, she lived in “shelters, foster homes, detention, and group homes.” A researcher for this report interviewed Mike Dryden, who was Alexis’ residential youth counselor in the first group home she lived in. Dryden said that he and his wife found Alexis to be:

“Intelligent, extremely intelligent. She was very outgoing, strong personality, pleasant to be around. Now, there was an anger and a temper there that was just below the surface . . . But I would never have believed that she would take someone’s life. When one of the other counselors told me what happened . . . it was absolute shock, my first thought was that she was picked up for someone else’s crime. I could maybe see her breaking into a house and taking credit cards, when she was on the run and scared. But hurting someone else? Never. A few months before it happened, when she graduated from Forest Ridge, my wife and I took her out special to Pizza Hut. I remember I let her take my two-year-old daughter Danielle to use the bathroom alone. That was how much I trusted [Alexis]. I still trust her; my wife and I say that if she ever gets out of prison she can come and live with us for a while until she gets her feet on the ground.” 98

Alexis’s behavior worsened between the ages of twelve and fourteen. The prosecutor in Alexis’s case recalled that she had delinquency charges during this period. 99

Alexis’s mother described the change in her daughter’s behavior after she turned twelve in the following way: “[S]he just changed. She stopped going to school. . . . She would get into fights, she was defiant, she had violent episodes. But then again, now I’ve got an eight-year-old and a sixteen-year-old, and they both have violent episodes. They call getting angry and yelling and all that violent, so I get violent too.”100

Alexis wrote, “I ran away from the last group home I was in when I was fourteen and that’s when all this trouble happened.”101 Court documents indicate that after running away, Alexis entered the home of a woman under the pretense of needing to use the phone, and she was later found to have taken and used the woman’s car and credit cards. The sixty-six-year-old woman was found dead from multiple stab wounds. Other physical evidence, such as bloodstains and fingerprints, linked Alexis to the crime.102 Both Alexis and her mother maintain that there were other individuals involved in the crime, but no one else was ever charged. Her mother says that the victim in the crime “was a very well known librarian in that town. She sounds like she was just a wonderful woman.”103

Alexis was transferred from juvenile court in order to stand trial as an adult in Iowa. At the conclusion of her trial, she was sentenced to life without parole for first degree murder. Today, Alexis’s mother says, “[Alexis] is a mature adult now. My daughter–it’s like she sacrificed herself to wake me up. . . . Well I lost her. She gets jealous when she hears about what I do now with the other kids, but she’s happy for them too.”104

[77] See, e.g., Elizabeth Cauffman and Laurence Steinberg, “(Im)maturity of Judgment in Adolescence: Why Adolescents May Be Less Culpable Than Adults,” Behavioral Science and Law, vol. 18, (2000), p. 742-43.

[78] See, e.g., William Gardner and Janna Herman, “Adolescent’s AIDS Risk Taking: A Rational Choice Perspective,” Adolescents in the AIDS Epidemic, William Gardner, et al., eds., (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1990), p. 17, 25-26 (“Adolescent’s AIDS Risk Taking”); Marty Beyer, “Recognizing the Child in the Delinquent,” Kentucky Child Rights Journal, vol. 7 (Summer 1999), p. 16-17.

[79] See Meghan M. Deerin, “The Teen Brain Theory,” Chicago Tribune, August 12, 2001, p. C1 (citing Russell Barkley, professor of psychiatry and neurology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School).

[80] Catherine C. Lewis, “How Adolescents Approach Decisions: Changes over Grades Seven to Twelve and Policy Implications,” Child Development, vol. 52 (1981) p. 538, 541-42 (noting that subjects in grades seven and eight considered future consequences only 11 percent of the time) (“How Adolescents Approach Decisions”).

[81] See “Adolescent’s AIDS Risk Taking” (concluding that adolescents often focus only on short-term implications of their actions, while ignoring long-term negative consequences); Barbara Kaban and Ann E. Tobey, “When Police Question Children: Are Protections Adequate?” Juvenile Center Child and Courts, vol. 1 (1999), p. 151, 155 (concluding that “research supports the notion that adolescents’ failure to consider long-term consequences may compromise youthful decision making. A failure to consider consequences may be due to a lack of understanding of the consequences as well as a failure to consider them.”); Marty Beyer, “Immaturity, Culpability & Competency in Juveniles: A Study of 17 Cases,” Summary of Criminal Justice, vol.15, no. 27 (2000) (“Immaturity, Culpability & Competency in Juveniles”); “How Adolescents Approach Decisions,” p. 541 (reporting results of an empirical study of juvenile decision-making which found that only 11 percent of seventh-eighth graders, 25 percent of tenth graders, and 48 percent of twelfth graders considered long-term consequences when making significant medical decisions).

[82] See Thomas Grisso, “What We Know About Youth’s Capacities,” Youth on Trial: A Developmental Perspective on Juvenile Justice, Thomas Grisso and Robert G. Schwartz, eds. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 267-69 (reviewing literature on effects of emotion on children’s cognitive capacities).

[83] See e.g., Kim Taylor-Thompson, “States of Mind/States of Development,” Stanford Law and Policy Review, vol. 14 (2003), p. 155, fn. 107-108 (reviewing research on effects of stress on juvenile decision-making) (“States of Mind/States of Development”).

[84] “Immaturity, Culpability & Competency in Juveniles,” p. 27. See also “States of Mind/States of Development,” p. 153.

[85]Human Rights Watch interview with Gregory C., Colorado State Penitentiary, Cañon City, Colorado, July 2, 2004 (pseudonym).

[86] See, e.g., Jeffrey Arnett, “Reckless Behavior in Adolescence: A Developmental Perspective,” Developmental Review, vol. 12 (1992), p. 339; Charles E. Irwin, Jr., “Adolescence and Risk Taking: How are They Related?” Adolescent Risk Taking , Nancy J. Bell and Robert J. Bell, eds. (Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, January 1993), p. 7.

[87] See, e.g., Jay N. Giedd, et al., “Brain Development During Childhood and Adolescence: A Longitudinal MRI Study,” Nature Neuroscience, vol. 2 (1999), p. 861 (discussing an MRI study of the brains of 145 children, images taken up to five times per child over ten years); Kenneth K. Kwong, et al., “Dynamic Magnetic Resonance Imaging of Human Brain Activity During Primary Sensory Stimulation,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, vol. 89 (1992), p. 5675.

[88] Bruce Bower, “Teen Brains On Trial: The Science Of Neural Development Tangles With The Juvenile Death Penalty,” Science News Online, vol. 165, no. 19 (May 8, 2004), available online at:, accessed on September 14, 2005.

[89] Ibid. See also Elkhonon Goldberg, The Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes and the Civilized Mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 434; Allan L. Reiss, et al., “Brain Development, Gender and IQ in Children: A Volumetric Imaging Study,” Brain, vol. 119 (1996), p. 1768; Elizabeth R. Sowell, et al., “Mapping Continued Brain Growth and Gray Matter Density Reduction in Dorsal Frontal Cortex: Inverse Relationships During Postadolescent Brain Maturation,” Journal of Neuroscience, vol. 21 (2001), p. 8821.

[90] See Daniel R. Weinberger, “A Brain Too Young For Good Judgment,” The New York Times, March 10, 2001, p. A13.

[91] Ibid.

[92] See, e.g., Jan Glascher and Ralph Adolphs, “Processing of the Arousal of Subliminal and Supraliminal Emotional Stimuli by the Human Amygdala,” Journal of Neuroscience, vol. 23 (2003), p. 10274.

[93] National Juvenile Defender Center, Adolescent Brain Development and Legal Culpability, April 2003 (quoting Dr. Deborah Yurgelun-Todd of Harvard Medical School).

[94] Gargi Talukder, “Decision-Making is Still a Work in Progress for Teenagers,” July 2000, available online at:, accessed on July 22, 2005.

[95] Ibid.

[96] Human Rights Watch interview with Alexis V., Iowa Correctional Facility for Women, Mitchellville, Iowa, April 5, 2004 (pseudonym) (unless otherwise noted, all statements attributed to Alexis V. in this case study were obtained during this interview).

[97] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Lee Ann Veal, April 29, 2005 (Interview with Lee Ann Veal).

[98] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Mike Dryden, former residential youth counselor at Forest Ridge home, Iowa, March 4, 2005.

[99] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Thomas Ferguson, November 22, 2004.

[100] Interview with Lee Ann Veal.

[101] Letter to Human rights Watch from Alexis V., Iowa correctional Institution for Women, Mitchellville, Iowa, March 29, 2004 (on file with Human Rights Watch).

[102] See Iowa v. Veal, 564 N.W.2d 797 (Iowa S. Ct. May 21 1997).

[103] Interview with Lee Ann Veal.

[104] Ibid.

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