October 29, 2009

Adolescent immaturity reduces culpability, say researchers

APA amicus brief in two upcoming high court cases
on life without parole for juveniles

Adolescents may not possess the maturity to be held to adult levels of responsibility for violent crimes, according to an article in the current issue of American Psychologist by Laurence Steinberg, a professor of developmental psychology at Temple University, and colleagues.

"Adolescents likely possess the necessary intellectual skills to make informed choices about terminating a pregnancy but may lack the social and emotional maturity to control impulses, resist peer pressure and fully appreciate the riskiness of dangerous decisions," Steinberg was quoted in Science Daily as saying. "This immaturity mitigates their criminal responsibility."

The researchers studied the differences in various cognitive and psychosocial capacities among 935 research participants, ages 10 to 30. Significant differences in mature decision-making were found between the 16- to 17-year-olds and people just four or five years older.

"It is very difficult for a 16-year-old to resist peer pressure in a heated, volatile situation," Steinberg said. "Most times, there is no time to talk to an adult to inject some reason and reality to the situation. Many crimes committed by adolescents are done in groups with other teens and are not premeditated."

Two friend-of-the-court briefs filed by the American Psychological Association in cases heard by the U.S. Supreme Court spurred questions about differences between cognitive and interpersonal maturity and the apparent inconsistency between APA's positions in the two cases. In its amicus brief filed in Roper v. Simmons (2005), the case that abolished the juvenile death penalty, APA presented research showing that adolescents are developmentally immature in ways that are relevant to their criminal culpability. In an earlier brief filed in Hodgson v. Minnesota (1990), which upheld adolescents' right to seek an abortion without parental approval, APA presented research regarding cognitive abilities that bear on medical choices, showing that adolescents are as mature as adults.

The APA differentiated these two scenarios by looking at the decision-making processes required for each situation. In the Hodgson case, APA described adolescents as being competent to make informed and sound health care decisions. In the Roper case, APA characterized adolescents as too short-sighted and impulsive to warrant capital punishment, no matter what the crime.

These issues are likely to be at the forefront of two U.S. Supreme Court cases -- the cases of Joe Sullivan and Terrance Graham -- slated to be heard this month, involving the constitutionality of sentencing juveniles to life without the possibility of parole. Sullivan, now 33, was 13 years old when he and two older boys broke into a home, where they robbed and raped an elderly woman. After a one-day trial, Sullivan was sentenced to life in prison with no chance for parole. The APA has filed an amicus brief presenting relevant research, including Steinberg's most recent study, to the court.

Adolescents' legal rights, said Steinberg, should be guided by accurate and timely scientific evidence on the nature and course of psychological development. "It is crucial to understand that brain systems responsible for logical reasoning and basic information processing mature earlier than systems responsible for self-regulation and the coordination of emotion and thinking," he said.

Further resources:

Laurence Steinberg, Elizabeth Cauffman, Jennifer Woolard, Sandra Graham, Marie Banich. Are Adolescents Less Mature than Adults? Minors' Access to Abortion, the Juvenile Death Penalty, and the Alleged APA 'Flip-Flop'. American Psychologist, 2009; Vol. 64, No. 7.

Supreme Court to consider juvenile 'lifers': Does life without parole for minors who didn't kill constitute cruel and unusual punishment? By David Savage,
Los Angeles Times (Sept. 28, 2009)

FRONTLINE: When Kids Get Life.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Their criteria for "immaturity (that)mitigates criminal responsibility" is not limited to juvenile offenders, so would we need to apply a maturity test before any criminal could be held criminally responsible?