Thursday, September 27, 2012

Adjusting juvenile law in light of SCOTUS rulings, scientific advancements

An item from the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange titled "Juvenile offenders in limbo under outdated state laws" describes a situation which, though our state is not mentioned, impacts 17 year olds in Texas sentenced after 2005 for capital murder, as well as those with pending capital murder charges. The story opens, "More than two years after U.S. Supreme Court decisions started throwing out mandatory death and life sentences for minors, judges in Washington, Illinois and dozens of other states still lack guidance on what to do with juveniles past and present convicted of murder and some other serious felonies."

Texas had already eliminated both the death penalty and life without parole for juveniles by the time Miller v. Alabama (pdf) was decided earlier this year, but in Texas offenders are charged as adults once they're 17 years old. The US Supreme Court, though, has now forbade both death penalty and life without parole sentences for defendants under 18 years old. So for someone charged with a capital offense at 17, there are presently no legal punishments available for capital murder under Texas law. In practice that shouldn't be a terrific dilemma for prosecutors. Seventeen-year-old defendants can still be charged and sentenced under regular murder statutes, and since both death sentences and LWOP are no longer options, there really isn't a substantive difference in the likely result. But Grits still expects the Legislature to take up the question next year to close the gap created in capital sentencing by the different definitions of "juvenile" under Texas and federal law.

Of course, that also raises a larger question the Legislature probably won't address next year, at least not comprehensively: Should 17 year olds be tried as adults in the first place? They have none of the rights of grown ups - can't vote, can't drink, etc. - but are held responsible as adults when they break Texas law. The issue is made more poignant by recent advances in neuroscience that have demonstrated how, as the ABA Journal put it not long ago, that:
While an individual’s cognitive abilities (thinking, reasoning) reach adult levels around the age of 16, studies show that psychosocial capabilities (impulse control, judgment, future orientation and resistance to peer pressure) continue to develop well into early adulthood.

Which answers the question so many parents have undoubtedly asked their teenage sons and daughters: How could somebody so smart do something so dumb?

Laurence Steinberg, a Temple University psychology professor who has been studying adolescent brain and behavioral development for 35 years, likens the teenage brain to a car with a powerful gas pedal and weak brakes. While the gas pedal responsible for things like emotional arousal and susceptibility to peer pressure is fully developed, the brakes that permit long-term thinking and resistance to peer pressure need work.
Steinberg says the latest research in developmental psychology confirms and strengthens the conclusion that juveniles as a group differ from adults in the salient ways the court identified in Roper [the SCOTUS case eliminating the death penalty for juveniles]. And emerging research in the field of neuroscience, not even mentioned in Roper, is helping to explain this biologically.
Such research shows, for instance, that adolescents exhibit more neural activity than adults or children in areas of the brain that promote risky and reward-based behavior. It also shows that the brain continues to mature well beyond adolescence in areas responsible for controlling thoughts, actions and emotions.
At the Texas Tribune festival last weekend, state Rep. Paul Workman (R-Austin), who sits on the Corrections Committee, suggested the Texas Department of Criminal Justice should designate separate units for 17-23 year olds - facilities he referred to as a "middle campuses" - both for their own protection and as an acknowledgement of this growing body of scientific research on brain development. That suggestion makes even more sense after the Lege directed in 2007 that 19-20 year olds sentenced as juveniles be moved from youth prisons to TDCJ.  Though the "middle campus" prospect wasn't discussed in much detail, Workman indicated such facilities could offer special programming unavailable in the regular adult system. I thought it was a fascinating and meritorious idea regarding a subject that's only beginning to gain traction as scientific developments begin to trickle down to influence court rulings and policy debates.

MORE: See a fairly lengthy discussion string from the Texas District and County Attorneys Association on the implications of Miller v. Alabama for Texas.

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