The “Teen Brain” and Criminal Behavior

The May 10, 2004 issue of Time magazine featured a cover story entitled, “Secrets of the Teen Brain”.  The article reported that new research was leading experts to believe that teens have less control over their actions and are less capable of acting rationally than had previously been believed.  Anyone who pays attention to the world around them didn’t need scientists to reveal this fact. 

Science was starting to provide solid evidence to prove what we already pretty much knew from our own experience and observations.  This area of research is one that is of great interest to me as an attorney who represents inmates in Texas who are being considered for parole.  I plan to post a blog article in the weeks to come that will provide the latest research and data on the differences between the teen brain and the adult brain.  Here’s a summary of what I know so far, without the charts, graphs, statistics,etc.

Scientists feel that the human brain is not fully developed until age 25, rather than the prior belief that the brain was finished developing at age 12 or 13.

The area of the brain that is the last to develop is the prefrontal cortex.  This area is where a brain plans, sets priorities, suppresses impulses, and weighs the consequences of one’s actions.  This area of the brain is not completely developed until age 23-25.  

When the Time article was printed, 2004, I was interested in the subject of teen driving behaviors because of my work in connection with a case involving a teen driver who had run a red light going almost 40 miles over the posted speed limit.  The accident nearly killed my client. 

The teen tearfully told me in a deposition that he didn’t know why he had been such a reckless driver, he just liked the way it felt when he drove cars fast, really fast.  He seemed like a pretty good kid from a pretty good home, and he had genuine remorse and guilt for what had happened.  Of course, he is now a convicted felon for life.

During the past four years, I have had plenty of opportunities to see firsthand evidence that younger people really do commit more crime, especially crimes arising from impulsive behavior, and these people have much more disciplinary problems in prisons than older inmates.  Ask any prison warden what group of inmates causes the most trouble.  The answer is always the same, the younger ones.

It is ironic that more young people are being prosecuted as adults, and sentence lengths are often longer for teens (especially the poor ones) and very young adults, despite mounting evidence that the teen brain is not the same as the adult brain.

Hormones also play a strong role in teen behavior.  Sex hormones are most active in the limbic center, which controls emotions.  Teens have a tendency to engage in activities that cause their passions to run wild.  This tendency contributes to the adolescent tendency to thrill-seek.  Testosterone is the sex hormone in males.  Approximately 90% of the prisoners in TDCJ are male.  I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.

Hmmm, are you thinking that the combination of the undeveloped or underdeveloped prefrontal cortex and the presence of high levels of hormones might just combine to cause bad things to happen?  This is not being offered as an excuse for criminal behavior, but it might just explain an awful lot, if anyone cares to pay attention.

This topic needs to be better understood by judges, juries, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and parole officials.  I haven’t seen much evidence that these folks understand the science, and I have to wonder how much science has to be in front of them before it will cause a change in how the “system” treats criminal behavior committed by younger people. 

One thought on “The “Teen Brain” and Criminal Behavior

  1. Sir, in the criminal justice system, where does the law end and science come in? This theory on brain development and crime has to be proven so that lawmakers will have a better understanding of why there are so many younger people committing crimes. I know it will take a while to make a change but it doesn’t hurt to start now. I enjoyed reading this informative article. Thank you.

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