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Courts and Crime

Researcher Says Juvenile Offenders’ Brains Not Fully Baked

Neil Conway
Flickr/Creative Commons

You may have heard the recent news about two teenage boys who allegedly stole a front-loader parked near the Maine Turnpike in West Gardiner and led police on a low-speed chase for several miles.

During their drive — some of it the wrong way down the highway — the two boys did substantial damage to property, and deliberately hit two cars, one of which was a police car.

No one was injured, but on hearing the news, you may have wondered, “What on Earth were they thinking?”

Well, that’s still not clear, and police are still investigating the incident. But the fact that the drivers of the front-loader were teenage boys may go a long way toward answering the question.

Elizabeth Cauffman, a professor of psychology and social behavior, education and law at the University of California at Irvine, researches the brain development of teenagers and young adults, many of whom commit much more serious crimes than joyriding.

Her work has played a key role in recent Supreme Court decisions that abolished both the death penalty and life without parole for juvenile offenders. She says the increasingly punitive approach that has been taken toward juvenile crime over the last several decades doesn’t lead to better outcomes — in part because older juveniles’ brains still aren’t fully developed.