As-Many-Chances-As-It-Takes Month

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April is Second Chance Month, so I felt it was only appropriate to discuss how the juvenile justice system is built on the idea of providing second (and third and fourth) chances to a population that has difficulty discerning between wrong and right. For those of us passionate about juvenile justice reform, we like to refer to this month instead as “As-Many-Chances-As-It-Takes Month.” We believe that every month should honor a clean slate.

One of the first things that comes to mind when we talk about young adults and providing them with second chances is brain development. Here’s a quick biology lesson, based on a book review of The Teenage Brain by Dr. Frances Jansen, the chair of the neurology department at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania:

  • The brain grows through increased connectivity between brain regions from a substance called myelin
  • Myelination strengthens and accelerates the communication between brain regions and governs learning capabilities
  • Myelination starts from the back and works toward the front, meaning that the prefrontal cortex is the last part to mature

The prefrontal cortex controls executive brain functions, such as the ability to focus attention, organize thoughts, problem-solve, inhibit inappropriate behavior, consider options when faced with a challenge, weigh consequences of behavior, delay gratification, and control impulses. It is not as if the prefrontal cortex is completely shut down until the myelination process occurs; the connections are not traveling to and from the back of the brain quickly enough to control emotion and action. Considering this, it is no wonder that young people struggle with the functions controlled by the prefrontal region.

While there has been long-standing controversy about the rigor of the neuroscience research that exists and how to apply the limited empirical evidence in practice, there have been many occasions in which this evidence has been validated, admitted, and creating new justice policy and precedent. For example, in Roper v. Simmons (2005), the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles cannot be sentenced to death, writing that the death penalty is a disproportionate punishment for a young person. This case examined the idea of culpability, and it found that developmental immaturity diminishes an adolescent’s culpability, as does their susceptibility to outside pressures and influences. Here are some other U.S. Supreme Court cases that have discussed the idea of adolescent brain development, and stand for the principle of second chances for juveniles in the justice system:

Although these cases were all decided in the 21st century, our nation has been using youth as a determinant in policy determinations for decades. Examples include serving on juries, enlisting in the military, purchasing firearms, consenting to medical procedures, running for office, obtaining a driver’s license, and accessing birth control medication. In some of these scenarios, the stakes are arguably just as high as in cases where young people are prosecuted in the adult criminal justice system or sentenced to life without parole.

Why do we consider neuroscience and value an adolescent’s youth more in the development of some of these policies, but not in others? If we know that adolescents are developmentally different than adults, why do some states continue to prosecute and sentence them as adults but not let them make their own medical decisions? In a country where young people cannot get married or get a tattoo without parental consent, how can we be comfortable sending children to adult correctional facilities?

There are countless examples of policies that have considered adolescent development in decision making, and this should not stop at the doors of the courthouse. For example, enacting “Raise the Age” Legislation or advocating for record sealing and expungement for people who were convicted of crimes as juveniles will ensure young people receive second chances. Right now, some of our policies are like punishing a young person for not being able to cross a river using a bridge that is only half-way complete.

Those of us working in juvenile justice reform can honor Second Chance Month by continuing to advance policies that account for the developmental differences in young people. Policies that consider the neuroscience would give many young people another opportunity to try crossing the river when the bridge is complete.

Anna Koozmin is a Program Associate at the Justice Programs Office. 

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