Adolescent Brain Development

Science has established that significant brain development activity in youth occurs well into the late teen years, and that the justice system should not hold youth offenders, even some violent offenders, to the same standards of accountability applied to adult criminals. For example, the MacArthur Foundation-funded Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice identified "The Immaturity Gap," demonstrating that while adolescent intellectual maturity tends to reach adult levels by age 16, adolescent psychosocial development (the source of impulse controls and other guards against delinquent behavior) continues into early adulthood, up to age 25 (MacArthur, 2006). Bennett and Baird (2006) explained that significant age-related changes in brain structure continue after the age of 18 and may represent dynamic changes related to new environmental challenges. Huffine (2002) demonstrated that many youth in the juvenile justice system are misdiagnosed. In particular, he challenges the appropriateness of conduct disorder and oppositional defiant disorder diagnoses, explaining that youth labeled with these disorders often have co-occurring mental health conditions, such as bipolar disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder. Oberstar, Andersen, and Jensen (2006) discussed the forensic implications of research about normal brain development in the context of mental illness, explaining that recent research is consistent with earlier, influential theories of cognitive and moral development, and that these research findings support treating children in the juvenile justice system differently from adults.