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Juvenile Crimes and the Adolescent Brain

Every adult will likely agree that their adolescent years were among the hardest, and most confusing, of their lives. Teenagers all over the world are undergoing stressful changes, shaping their identity, experimenting, and seeking acceptance from their peers—and a lot of these motivations and desires may drive them to commit juvenile crimes like theft, trespassing, vandalism, drug offenses, or even more violent crimes. It’s easy to condemn teenagers who have committed a crime, and blame their actions on stupidity and recklessness.

Fact is, juvenile crimes are attributed to several factors. According to Laurence Steinberg, an adolescent brain development expert at Temple University, the criminal justice system needs to rethink how juvenile crimes are handled. His research indicates that the adolescent brain is still in development, as we know, and juvenile offenses may be a little more out of their control than we think.

  • Adolescents are more likely to take risks in groups. The risk doubles with friends or peers. The reward centers of the brain are activated with friends around, which motivates juveniles to take risks and commit crimes to impress their friends for reward and praise.
  • During adolescence, the pre-frontal cortex is growing and maturing. This critical part of the brain dictates behavior, and controls impulses. Without a mature pre-frontal cortex, teenagers are more likely to make impulsive and ill-advised decisions. Identifying risk isn’t quite the issue at hand—the issue is impulse control and a reward-driven consciousness. Mr. Steinberg compared the adolescent brain to a vehicle with great acceleration, but weak brakes—adolescents are highly driven by reward, but don’t quite have the discretion and control to discern properly.
  • Juvenile crimes generally don’t develop into adult crimes. 90% of adolescents who break the law will not continue a life of crime into adulthood.
  • Guidance from a trusted adult can reduce the chance of juvenile crime, or provide redirection after a juvenile crime.
  • Nearly half of juvenile arrests are made on theft, simple assault, vandalism, substance abuse, disorderly conduct, and curfew violations—theft is the most common adolescent crime committed.

Neuroscience is informing current juvenile crime policy—Models for Change are driving multi-state initiatives to make the juvenile justice systems fairer, more effective, more rational, and appropriate for the juvenile age group. Current scientific studies also estimate that we can anticipate those more at risk for juvenile crimes, and provide direction for first-time offenders, or those at risk.

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