The U.S. Supreme Court ruling this May in Graham v. Florida, restricting life without parole sentences for juveniles, relied in part upon scientific evidence from developmental psychology and neuroscience. In ruling that juveniles are categorically different from adults, the high court was assisted by amicus briefs from the American Psychological Association and other professional organizations including the American Psychiatric Association and the National Association of Social Workers.
The APA's position, which the Supreme Court also validated in its 2005 ruling in Roper v. Simmons outlawing the death penalty for juveniles, is that juveniles' diminished culpability is based on three basic differences from adults:
- Immaturity: Juveniles are more impulsive and less likely to reason judiciously about risk
- Vulnerability: They are more likely to be influenced by peer pressure
- Changeability: They are still developing, and are more amenable to rehabilitation than adults
Bryan Stevenson: "Huge implications" of Graham case
In an eloquent presentation, NYU law professor Bryan A. Stevenson, founder of Alabama's Equal Justice Initiative, expressed optimism that Graham and the twin case of Sullivan v. Florida, in which he was counsel, signal that the tide is turning away from the punitive Superpredator hysteria of the 1980s. He encouraged the APA to continue its public policy advocacy by bringing legal attention to the impacts of trauma, violence, and neglect on youngsters.
Hopefully, the capacity crowd of psychologists will attend to the implications of Stevenson’s other take-home messages: Mass incarceration has radically changed American society, creating a class of "new untouchables." And the victims of this sea change are overwhelmingly poor and minority. Indeed, he asserted, wealth -- not criminal culpability -- largely drives criminal sentencing. In Louisiana, for example, of the juveniles serving life without parole for crimes other than homicide at the time of the Graham decision, 94 percent are African American. Most are incarcerated for rape, with 71 percent of the victims being white.
Tom Grisso: "Forensic examiners beware"
Forensic psychology guru Tom Grisso sounded a more cautionary note about Graham's implications. The high court's adoption of a categorical approach to juveniles is at odds with the discretionary, individualized method at the core of forensic assessment, he pointed out.
Grisso demonstrated his point through a mock cross-examination. On the stand, the mock expert conceded that the research of Laurence Steinberg, Elizabeth Cauffman, and others on adolescent immaturity is now widely accepted in the field, as shown by Supreme Court's rulings in Graham and Roper. Next, Grisso produced a New York Times op-ed co-authored by Steinberg, reiterating Roper's conclusion that psychologists "are unable to distinguish between the young person whose crime reflects transient immaturity and the rare juvenile offender who may deserve the harsh sentence of life without parole." In the script, the expert was left speechless and incapable of defending her individualized opinions about risk.
Grisso said forensic psychologists must be aware of this debate, and think about how to answer such questions in court. The outlook for prediction is not as bleak as the APA's advocacy efforts might suggest, he asserted, as experts do have a reliable basis on which to give probability estimates, especially about more short-term risk.
Good news for juveniles with a sex crime
A panel of juvenile sex offender experts was more upbeat about the implications of the scientific research on adolescent difference. As with general criminality, they said, research has not identified methods to accurately predict which juveniles will reoffend sexually. Indeed, none of the factors that predict sex offender recidivism in adults (multiple victims, male victims, young child victims, personality disorder, sexual deviance, etc.) predict recidivism for juveniles.
But this inability to differentiate is not bad news, because what we can say is that the overwhelming majority -- 93 percent -- of juveniles who have committed a sex crime will not reoffend sexually as adults.
An audience member who works in the civil commitment industry expressed incredulity at the cumulative research, saying many of the men in his civil detention facility began their offending careers in their teens.
That may be true, responded researcher Michael Caldwell. But the directionality cannot be reversed. All NBA stars may have played basketball in the ninth grade. But we cannot predict by watching a group of ninth-graders play basketball which, if any, of the players will become basketball superstars.
(A summary of the presentation, "Juvenile Offenders are Ineligible for Civil Commitment as Sexually Violent Predators," is online HERE; it contains a slough of good references. The PowerPoint presentation is HERE.)
Judges launch crusade to save children of color
The most optimistic presentation I attended was a symposium of family court judges who are at the forefront of a movement to reduce the vastly disproportionate representation of minority children in the child welfare system, from which many graduate to juvenile delinquency and adult criminal courts.
The remarkable Hon. Katherine Lucero of San Jose, California said she became active in this movement when she realized she was serving as part of the vast "cradle-to-prison pipeline," processing children who would end up poor, homeless, drug addicted, illiterate, pregnant at a young age, delinquent, and -- ultimately -- incarcerated. When she looked out at her courtroom filled with children of color, her training that justice is blind was cognitively dissonant, making her feel like she was living "in a delusion."
The equally inspiring Hon. Nan Waller of Portland, Oregon said the movement challenges the basic historical tenet of the child welfare system, which promotes removal from families -- so-called "child rescue" -- rather than family strengthening. Most of the mothers who lose their children are suffering from severe trauma that they medicate with drugs. Rather than "cookie-cutter" quick-fixes, including automatic referrals for psychological evaluations and parenting classes, these women need support and help obtaining even basic resources such as housing, transportation, and health care, the judges said.
Assisted by a research and advocacy project of the National Council on Juvenile and Family Court Judges, these and other judges are using a combination of model courts, wraparound services, community interventions, training in implicit race bias at all levels of the system, and other creative methods to reduce the number of children who are placed in foster care. Already, their data show they are having an impact in their respective communities.
Alarming call for preventive detention of children
In the discussion period following their presentation, the judges said they are turning away from ordering psychological reports except when a parent has a genuine, severe mental disorder. They gave two reasons for this. First, psychological evaluations are costly. Second, and more important, the judges do not find it helpful to "slap" pathologizing psychiatric labels on parents. They expressed curiosity as to whether and how we in the field of psychology are working to address the effects of poverty and racism in the populations we serve.
Sadly, the honest answer is that many forensic practitioners and scholars are not adequately addressing the impact of larger social forces -- poverty, race, trauma -- on the people we evaluate, treat, and/or study. Perhaps the sparse attendance at the judges' presentation as compared with other seminars in the forensic juvenile justice track is an indicator of this neglect.
Indeed, at a more well-attended session came a chilling proposal at the polar opposite extreme: To establish a system to preventively detain dangerous juveniles. Raising this "public safety" proposal was attorney Christopher Slobogin, a co-author of the forensic psychology stalwart Psychological Evaluations for the Courts. It will formally air in a book, Juveniles at Risk: A Plea for Preventive Justice, forthcoming from Oxford University Press. Slobogin has good intentions, I am sure; he believes such a model will treat juveniles more fairly and help stem the erosion of the separate juvenile justice system.
But the proposal has potentially far-reaching unintended consequences. It myopically ignores what the family court judges and attorney Stevenson are so painfully aware of: The differential treatment of poor and minority children. It is hard to accurately predict juvenile risk, and actuarial risk prediction tools are especially inaccurate when applied to juveniles. This is just the type of nebulous decision-making situation in which implicit (unconscious) biases are most salient, research shows. Forensic psychological evaluations would provide a scientific veneer, masking racial and class biases in deciding who is labeled as dangerous and who is not.
Rather than locking up kids for crimes they have not (yet) committed, we should be working to give young victims of trauma and abuse -- and their families -- the practical resources and tools they need to lead productive lives. Let's hope the field of psychology and public policymakers heed the pleas of the judges and attorneys in the trenches who are fighting to save kids before they get sucked into the "cradle-to-prison pipeline" in the first place.