What it means to be an “adult” can have two definitions; one regarding someone’s chronological age and another in respect to maturity. Within the Supreme Court, a person is generally considered to be an adult when they reach the age of 18 years old. However, when a person under that age has committed murder, all definitions of adulthood go out the window and biological children can face life without parole. In spite of scientific and sociological research regarding juvenile capability, certain states will still try children as adults regardless of their age.
According to modern neuroscience, the prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain responsible for planning, impulse control, among other things. This area of the brain continues to develop until the early twenties. It is biologically proven that even between the ages of 18-24, people on the latter end of the age scale are developmentally able to make better, more in-depth decisions and have better reasoning capabilities. Children’s brains are not even in the end stages of maturation until at least 18 years old, therefore how can the judicial system throwout scientific facts that help make the distinction between adolescents and true adults? The truth is that they can’t, nor should it. Saying that someone has the mental capacity to be considered an adult even at 18 is a stretch. The science of the matter is that your brain is not fully functioning until you’re in your mid-20’s so the notion of adulthood set at any age before that is arbitrary.
Setting the legal bar so high for adolescent offenders is morally bankrupt. A 13 year old may be tried in the courts as an adult for a crime yet have none of the rights as a legal adult. Children aren’t considered mature enough to drink, smoke, gamble, engage in consenting sexual activity or go to war but they can legally spend the rest of their lives in prison because of their alleged culpability for a crime. Its confounding that all responsibility of a crime should be placed upon the shoulders of a child without granting them all the rights as a legal adult.
In 2005 the Supreme Court decided that executing children younger than 18 years old was unconstitutional due to their neurobiological immaturity. Executing someone for a crime based upon their biological age is considered unconstitutional and yet an 11 year old can be tried as an adult for a crime and spend the rest of their life in prison without the possibility of parole and that doesn’t infringe on the notion of constitutionality.
Cognitive behaviorists have proven years ago that adolescents seek out risk and have difficulty regulating their emotions. The issue arises then about the cognitive development of individuals. Gender, environmental influences and genetics all play a part in brain development. For instance, adolescents develop the capability for logical reasoning before self-regulatory abilities; they’re able to see that a behavior is wrong before they’re able to resist the urge to engage in the activity. Developing these skills at different times allows for expectations to be placed upon certain ages. We trust 16-year-olds to drive but not vote, so the notion of at what age we become responsible is blurred. This makes for a society that is unique to the United States. Other countries don’t have the same staggered maturation process that the U.S. does. This leaves the courts open to dole out punishments for crimes committed by children as if they were adults with their full mental faculties in place, blurring the lines about what being an adult really means.
Spinks, Sarah. “Adolescent Brains Are A Work In Progress.” Nature, Mar. 2000.
Bandura, Albert. “Social cognitive theory of self-regulation.” Organizational behavior and human decision processes 50.2 (1991): 248-287.