The Late Teens and Early Twenties: A Dramatic Period for Personal Growth
Human beings change, in dramatic ways, over time. It is a singular theme that resonates through the personal experiences of the individuals Human Rights Watch interviewed for this report and an empirical fact supported by scientific data on human development. It has particularly emphatic implications for young people, as experience and science both confirm change naturally occurs during the years leading up to adulthood. As a transitional period, reports a study by Temple Professor of Psychology Laurence Steinberg and others, adolescence is marked by rapid and dramatic [individual] change in the realms of biology, cognition, emotion, and intrapersonal relationships and by equally impressive transformations in the major contexts in which children spend time.85
Teens are not adults. Their limited life experience, immaturity, and under-developed psychological and biological constitutions led the US Supreme Court to recognize that youth are not as culpable for their crimes as adults, when it held the death penalty unconstitutional for offenders under age 18: The case for retribution is not as strong with a minor as with an adult. Retribution is not proportional if the laws most severe penalty is imposed on one whose culpability or blameworthiness is diminished, to a substantial degree, by reason of youth and immaturity.86
This is not to say that youths actions should go unpunished. In fact, not a single one of the individuals serving life without parole for crimes committed as teens suggested that he or she should not be held responsible for his own actions. We are humans. We make mistakes. We sometimes do really bad things, said Eduardo E. Im not trying to say that we shouldnt be punished for what we did.87
Additionally, no one interviewed denied the tragedy that their actions have caused. Some interviewees explained that they believe punishment is deserved and expressed evident remorse for actions they can now view through the sobriety of adult eyes. Many who communicated with us pinpointed when they really began to understand the significance of having taken a life. The human factor, of being involved in taking someones life. Its hard to put into words, something of that magnitude, said Billy G., now 32, who wept when discussing his involvement in the crime with a Human Rights Watch researcher. He described an awareness growing over a number of years about what he had done. As a kid, you dont realize how fragile life is or how fragile it becomes.88 Thirty-three year old Roland T. described the process of beginning to understand what he had done, and his feelings of remorse. My thoughts about what I had done to themIve been thinking about the crime, my case, and the victims a lot, he told us. I didnt realize my situation until I was about 24 or 25 years old. I started thinking about my whole life, what my whole family went throughtheir pain and suffering. I started waking up. I started regretting Just me really accepting what I had done to them, said Roland. 89
Recent scientific findings reveal dramatic structural growth in the brain during teen years. These findings, advanced with the use of increasingly sophisticated MRI image analysis, overturns assumptions regarding the completion of brain development at early adolescence.90 Much of the focus on this relatively new discovery has been on teenagers limited comprehension and inability to act with adult-like volition. Just as important, however, is the conclusion that teens are still developing. These findings suggest that young offenders may be particularly amenable to change and rehabilitation.
Research has shown that the most dramatic difference between the brains of teens and young adults is the development of the frontal lobe. 91 The frontal lobe is responsible for cognitive processing, such as planning, strategizing, and organizing thoughts and actions. Researchers have determined that one area of the frontal lobethe dorsolateral prefrontal cortexis among the latest brain regions to mature, not reaching adult dimensions until a person is in his or her twenties.92 This part of the brain is linked to the ability to inhibit impulses, weigh consequences of decisions, prioritize, and strategize.93 The decision-making process leading up to teen criminal acts is shaped by impulsivity, immaturity, and an under-developed ability to appreciate consequences and resist environmental pressuresattributes characteristic of children and adolescents. Some researchers have further clarified that it is not just a cognitive difference between adolescents and adults, but a complex combination of ability to make good decisions and social and emotional capability that result in a difference of maturity of judgment.94
While the precise relationship between brain growth and behavioral change is not yet clear, the malleability of a youths brain development implies that teens through their twenties may be particularly amenable to change as they grow older and attain adult levels of development.95 The reality that juveniles still struggle to define their identity, noted the US Supreme Court in its 2005 Roper v. Simmons decision, means it is less supportable to conclude that even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile is evidence of irretrievably depraved character. From a moral standpoint, it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minors character deficiencies will be reformed.96
Furthermore, changes that occur during the teen and early adult years tend to be significantly more dramatic than change during later adult years because of the marked mental, physical, psychological, and emotional growth associated with this period.97
In the context of criminal behavior, changes that occur in the late teens and early twenties are significant. For example, compared with adults, risk-taking behaviors for teens can be short-lived.98 According to Professors Steinberg and Scott, For most teens, these [risky or illegal] behaviors are fleeting; they cease with maturity as individual identity becomes settled. Only a relatively small proportion of adolescents who experiment in risky or illegal activities develop entrenched patterns of problem behavior that persist into adulthood.99 These behaviors are for most people part of a temporary, experimental period during which teens generally engage in risky activities such as drug use, unsafe sex, alcohol use, and antisocial behaviors.100
No parent of a teenager needs a brain scientist to tell them that teens are likely at times to, for example, fail to consider the consequences of their actions or resist impulses. However, neuroscientific advances help define the significance of these factors. A deeper understanding of adolescent brain development has become increasingly a part of public awareness, with discussions occurring in popular magazines such as Time and Newsweek, newspapers, and on television shows. 101 The far-reaching significance of this information is beginning to permeate different sectors. Why do most 16 year olds drive like they are missing a part of their brain? Because they are, concludes a full-page ad for Allstate car insurance. Even bright, mature teenagers do things that are stupid, it continues, with a discussion of the underdeveloped part of a 16-year-olds brain that deals with decision-making, problem-solving, and understanding future consequences.102
In the vast majority of over 130 written and in-person communications with Human Rights Watch, people serving life without parole for crimes committed as youth described themselves as fundamentally different from what they were at the time of their crimewhen they were 14, 15, 16, or 17 years old. Many described a major shift in how they viewed themselves, their actions, and their ability to control and manage their emotions. Reflection rather than impulse and an increasing awareness of the consequences of their actions versus present-oriented thinking were typical ways that individuals said they matured during their latter teen years stretching into their early twenties. It could be argued that anyone serving time is likely to claim that he or she has changed. However, these individuals are reflecting on a period in life that is a time of tremendous individual change and growth for most people. 103
When asked about whether he still remained involved with gangs in prison, Jay C. said, No, I left everything when I turned 24 or 25. My mind started working for some reason. I started thinking about life.104 Others marked a changing point in their early to mid-twenties as well. Looking back, they describe how they are different than they were at the time of the crime. For example:
The reality that criminal behaviors are likely to be transient for youth is evidenced by the concrete changes in identity displayed and described by interviewees. Despite the hardship of maturing in prison, individuals interviewed by Human Rights Watch for this report have developed into young adults with a settled identity that prioritizes family, education, and self-improvement.
Two people serving life without parole for crimes committed under age 18 interviewed by Human Rights Watch earned placements in an elite prison unit called the Honor Yardthe only one of its kind in the statereserved for exemplary inmates who have remained completely clear of any disciplinary issues, and have committed to drug-free and violence-free living.110 Many others we interviewed said they had actively pursued education or self-help programming, had assumed leadership positions in extracurricular activities, or had maintained outstanding disciplinary records. Despite various institutional barriers to participating in prison programs, 70 percent of respondents to our survey said that they have availed themselves of programs such as General Education Development exam (GED) classes and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.111 Others listed their top interests as reading, writing, and studying.112 Jay C. described how he spends his time: I seldom watch T.V. I'm almost always reading something, newspapers, books, magazines.113 Joseph R. said he had passed his GED exam and had not had an incident on his disciplinary record in years. My outlook on life has matured. Ive educated myself, and I continue to educate myself. My focus is to achieve and achieve.114
Ray J., aside from becoming a librarian while in prison, has also been a participant in a program in which inmates counsel and advise troubled teens. 115 Brian C. was engaged in the same program until he was moved to a prison that did not have it.116 Richard P. told us that prison staff invited him to speak to kids from the outside about how to change their lives in a program called Changing from Within. Only seven or eight inmates are allowed to participate, he said. He speaks to as many as 20 kids at each session, and he can see that some of them come from the same violent background that he did. Some listen to me. But if they go through what I did, its hard to go back to their lives. One kid said he didnt even have school clothes. He ran out of a store [stealing] clothes. I heard that and broke down [crying]. Richard explained that he had renounced gang ties, dropping out of the violence and chaos of prison life. I just want to help somebody, he says. Speaking of the youngsters, his voice caught. I owe these dudes this.117
Chris D., who wrote and performed music before entering prison, said he continues to compose songs.118 Saul Paul G. said he reads history, draws, and prays.119 Nick V. has become an ordained Buddhist minister and prison staff trusts him to officiate over Buddhist services.120
Several noted that their prison experience, however bad, had helped them change. Brock I. said he had just turned 31 and had been locked up since age 17. To be honest, I gained perspective on life that would not have happened on the streets. I've become an adult in here. Its crazy how different you think at 31 compared to when I was 21 let alone 17.121 Several, such as Thomas J., reflected on the pain they had caused in their crimes: It's been hard. But I also think a lot of the victim's family. I think about how hard it was or is for them, and that makes me stop thinking and crying for myself.122
Others we have communicated with have not been as successful in evading the pressures and politics of prison life. [W]hen I first came to the CDCR, I came with the knowledge that I would be here, literally, forever and chose to make a name for violence, with a belief that many people are abused and mistreated inside prison walls every day but people make a wide path for the convict with a knife in his pocket who isnt afraid to use it, wrote Thomas H.123 Several interviewees described continued involvement with gangs while in prison and the sense that there was no other choice but to choose violence in such a violent setting. In some ways Im better, in other ways Im worse than I was at 17. We segregate ourselves here. Violence is a way of life in prison, Robert D. told us.124
Overall, prisoners who serve a sentence for murder and are released prove to be the least likely of any type of offender to commit new crimes. Following their release, convicted homicide offenders are less than half as likely be convicted of any new crime than released assault, burglary, or drug offenders.125
Some suggest that people sentenced as juveniles are different from other prisoners. Chris D. opined, The majority of kids who come in here are people who got caught up in the streets. Theyre not bad people. Its a mixture of things that the street throws at youpeer pressure, circumstances, lots of things that a young mind cant conceive.126
85 Dante Cicchetti and Donald Cohen, eds., Developmental Psychopathology (Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, 2006), Chapter 18, Laurence Steinberg et al., The Study of Developmental Psychopathology in Adolescence: Integrating Affective Neuroscience with the Study of Context, p. 710.
86 Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 571 (2005).
87 Human Rights Watch interview with Eduardo E., serving life without parole in California, July 13, 2007.
88 Human Rights Watch interview with Billy G. serving life without parole in California, June 29, 2007.
89 Human Rights Watch interview with Roland T., serving life without parole in California, July 16, 2007.
90 US Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health, Teenage Brain: A Work in Progress, 2001, http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/teenage-brain-a-work-in-progress.shtml (accessed November 25, 2007).
91 Dante Cicchetti and Donald Cohen, eds., Developmental Psychopathology (Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, 2006), Chapter 18, Laurence Steinberg et al., The Study of Developmental Psychopathology in Adolescence: Integrating Affective Neuroscience with the Study of Context, p. 710.
92 Jay N. Giedd, Structural Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Adolescent Brain, Annals of the New York Academy of Science, vol. 1021, (2004), p. 83.
94 Elizabeth Cauffman and Laurence Steinberg, (Im)maturity of Judgment in Adolescence: Why Adolescents May Be Less Culpable Than Adults, Behavioral Sciences and the Law, vol. 18, (2000), p.741.
95 Dante Cicchetti and Donald Cohen, eds., Developmental Psychopathology (Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, 2006), Chapter 18, Laurence Steinberg et al., The Study of Developmental Psychopathology in Adolescence: Integrating Affective Neuroscience with the Study of Context, p. 710.
96 Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 570 (2005).
97 Dante Cicchetti and Donald Cohen, eds., Developmental Psychopathology (Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, 2006), Chapter 18, Laurence Steinberg et al., The Study of Developmental Psychopathology in Adolescence: Integrating Affective Neuroscience with the Study of Context, pp. 725-726.
98 Laurence Steinberg and Elizabeth S. Scott, Less Guilty by Reason of Adolescence: Developmental Immaturity, Diminished Responsibility, and the Juvenile Death Penalty, American Psychologist, vol. 58, no. 12, (December 2003), p. 1014.
101 See Emma Schwartz, A Threat to Teen Brains: Alcohol's harms are worse for young people, US News and World Report, http://www.usnews.com/articles/news/national/2007/09/29/alcohols-harms-are-worse-for-teens.html (accessed November 9, 2007), September 29, 2007; David Bjerklie, How the Teen Brain Works, Time Magazine, September 8, 2006, http://time.blogs.com/daily_rx/2006/09/attack_of_the_t.html (accessed November 9, 2007),; Claudia Wallis, What Makes Teens Tick? Time Magazine, May 10, 2004, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1101040510-631970,00.html (accessed November 9, 2007); Sharon Begley, Getting inside a teen brain, Newsweek Magazine, vol. 135, issue 9, February 28, 2000, p. 58; Shannon Brownlee, Inside the Teen Brain: Behavior can be baffling when young minds are taking shape, US News and World Report, August 1, 1999, http://www.usnews.com/usnews/culture/articles/990809/archive_001644.htm (accessed November 9, 2007),.
102 One place this ad appeared was in US News and World Report, September 10, 2007.
103 Dante Cicchetti and Donald Cohen, eds., Developmental Psychopathology (Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, 2006), Chapter 18, Laurence Steinberg et al., The Study of Developmental Psychopathology in Adolescence: Integrating Affective Neuroscience with the Study of Context, pp. 725-726.
104 Human Rights Watch interview with Jay C., serving life without parole in California, July 16, 2007.
105 Human Rights Watch interview with Billy G., serving life without parole in California, June 29, 2007.
106 Human Rights Watch interview with Michael A., serving life without parole in California, June 29, 2007.
107 Survey response from Reggie Y., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, July 28, 2007.
108 Survey response from Cliff D., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, August 21, 2007.
109 Survey response from Willis E., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, July 25, 2007.
110 As described the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, The Honor Yard Program at California State Prison-Los Angeles County (CSP-LAC), created in 2000, is a voluntary program where inmates pledge to follow prison rules and not engage in gang activity, violence, illegal drugs and disruptive behavior. Honor Yard inmates submit to mandatory drug testing and participate in vocational, educational, juvenile diversion, life skills, and other rehabilitative endeavors. See, Plan to Keep the Honor Yard Program at L.A. Prison Demonstrates CDCR's Commitment to Rehabilitation, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation press release, March 23, 2007, http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/News/2007_Press_Releases/Press20070323.html (accessed November 5, 2007).
111 Significant barriers to self-improvement opportunities exist; see discussion at page 57 of this report.
112 Seventy percent of respondents to Human Rights Watchs survey list reading as a top interest, 33 percent named writing, and 22 percent studying. Only 23 percent gave watching television or listing to music as a priority.
113 Survey response from Jay C., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, July 26, 2007.
114 Human Rights Watch interview with Joseph R., serving life without parole in California, July 16, 2007.
115 Human Rights Watch interview with Ray J., serving life without parole in California, July 16, 2007.
116 Human Rights Watch interview with Brian C., serving life without parole in California, July 17, 2007.
117 Human Rights Watch interview with Richard P., serving life without parole in California, August 17, 2007.
118 Human Rights Watch interview with Chris D., serving life without parole in California, July 16, 2007.
119 Human Rights Watch interview with Saul Paul G., serving life without parole in California, July 13, 2007. This interviewee chose his own pseudonym. In describing how he had changed from the 16-year-old he was when convicted for murder in 1991, he attributes in large part his success to God. Citing the New Testament in his correspondence with us, he notes the following verse as especially meaningful to him: "When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; But when I became a man, I put away childish things." 1st Corinthians 13:11.
120 Human Rights Watch interview with Nick V., serving life without parole in California, July 13, 2007.
121 Survey response from Brock I., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch. July 30, 2007.
122 Survey response from Thomas J., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, August 23, 2007.
123 Letter from Thomas H., serving life without parole in California, to Human Rights Watch, July 24, 2007.
124 Human Rights Watch interview with Robert D., serving life without parole in California, July 13, 2007.
125 About 21 percent of released prisoners who are convicted homicide offenders are convicted of a new crime (any felony or serious misdemeanor) within three years of release. By contrast, the reconviction rate of released assault offenders was 44 percent, burglary offenders was 54 percent, and drug offenders 47 percent. US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1994, June 2002, http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/rpr94.pdf (accessed November 30, 2007) p. 7.
126 Human Rights Watch interview with Chris D., serving life without parole in California, July 16, 2007.