On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled out life sentences without the possibility of parole for teenage criminals. The case involved a 17-year old convicted of home-invasion robbery, his second crime.
In the editorial accompanying the news article, the NY Times writes today that the decision “recognizes that children mature and should not be irrevocably punished for a childhood act short of killing.” The opinion says “recent scientific evidence showing a fundamental difference between the minds of juveniles and adults.” And it quotes Justice Kennedy, who “noted that the brain matures through late adolescence” and said, “juvenile actions are less likely to be evidence of an ‘irretrievably depraved character.’”
The newspaper’s reasoning does not make clear why murder should be excluded from crimes covered under the decision. The truth of its statements about adolescents does not change when the crime is murder.
In an amicus brief [pdf] to the court, the AMA provided a summary of scientific findings on adolescents and their developing brains. The medical association said adolescents are “risky, impulsive, and sensation-seeking, … less capable of controlling their impulses, … more emotionally volatile and susceptible to stress and peer influences.” The brief explained that
brain imaging studies reveal that adolescents generally exhibit more neural activity than adults or children in areas of the brain that promote risky and reward-based behavior. These studies also demonstrate that the brain continues to mature, both structurally and functionally, throughout adolescence in regions of the brain responsible for controlling thoughts, actions, and motions.
Concurring, the American Psychological Association also submitted an opinion [pdf] to the court:
Recent neuroscience research shows that adolescent brains are not yet fully developed in regions related to higher-order executive functions such as impulse control, planning ahead, and risk evaluation. That anatomical immaturity is consonant with juveniles’ demonstrated psychosocial (that is, social and emotional) immaturity.
In 2001, Christopher Pittman, a pre-teen of 12, murdered his grandparents. He was tried as an adult and could have been give a life-sentence. But psychiatrists testified that a significant factor in the commission of the crime was that Pittman had been prescribed antidepressants just prior to the murders and suffered a rare psychotic reaction at the time of the crime. In 2004, the FDA reviewed evidence and concluded that children and adolescents are unusually vulnerable to suicidal reactions while taking antidepressants, particularly in the first weeks of treatment. And most psychiatrists consider suicidality and homicidality to be closely related behavioral abnormalities.
Reactions to drugs (prescribed or self-administered) are another way that the differences of young, developing brains of children and adolescents may become manifest. And many, perhaps most, adolescents who commit crimes have ingested one or more psychotropic substance before doing so. Taking into account the possible effect of the (prescribed) drugs, the Pittman’s judge sentenced him to the minimum allowed sentence, 30 years in the penitentiary.
It should make no difference if the crime is murder. A child or adolescent criminal remains capable of great change, maturation, and redemption despite the nature of the crime. No child or adolescent should be sentenced to remain in prison for the rest of his or her life.