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.
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.
On June 29, 20015, Jarrell Milton, Jamar Milton and Shauntayvious Primes-Willis (aged 12, 17, and 15, respectively) were involved in a gang-related shooting over a drug deal where Jamymell Ray, 31, was killed in Omaha, Nebraska. Jamar and Shauntayvious were apprehended immediately following the crime but Jarrell wasn’t arrested until 10 days later, all the way in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Prosecutors say that Ray and friend Charles Fisher, who was injured but later released from the hospital, had arranged to meet the kids in a park to sell them marijuana when they were hit by gunfire. Prosecutors said Wednesday that they plan to charge Jarrell and two teen accomplices with first-degree murder as adults; “All three suspects had guns. There were shell casings from two different types of guns at the scene,” Douglas County District Attorney Don Kleine said, adding that the victim was shot at close range.
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.
Developmentally speaking, the fact that the District Attorney is even entertaining the notion of trying a pre-teen as an adult for a Murder I charge is horrifying. There is irrefutable scientific research that proves that a person that young cognitively cannot comprehend the impact of his actions. Jarrell Milton is pre-pubescent which means that his neurological cognitive functioning makes it physiologically impossible for him to consider the long term consequences of his actions. At puberty, a child’s Limbic System experiences an increase in dopamine levels while, conversely, the amygdala becomes extremely underactive. This opposing relationship cause a drastic increase in adolescent risk-taking and delinquent behaviors. This biologically programmed poor decision making is exacerbated by the presence of one’s peers. The prosecution’s theory that Jarrell Milton had been complicit in a premeditative plan to lure a man to the park so that they could attempt a robbery is idiotic. Children are physically, biologically and neurologically incapable of making the same informed critical thinking as an adult, therefore, it is essentially immoral and unethical to try a child as an adult.
Neurobiological immaturity aside, Jarrell Milton suffered from so many traumatic Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) that his brain most likely was under-developed compared to a neuro-typically developing peer without prior ACEs. Scientific research has proven that adolescent trauma negatively affects neurological development. As a toddler, Jarrell’s mother was incarcerated for felony assault and Jarrell, along with this 7 siblings, were sent to live in state run foster care. Jarrell’s father is also currently serving a life sentence in prison for a murder conviction as a result of a drug deal gone wrong, exactly the same crime and charges that his 12-year-old son is now facing. This child grew up surrounded by crime, gangs and violent peer influence that detrimentally affected his neurological and social development. Gangs, such as the Nike Street Gang that Jarrell, his brother and also his cousins are a part of, are notorious for exploiting their young members for carrying out crimes because they would receive less time in jail because of their ages. The lack of family stability that Jarrell has experienced for his entire short life made him a perfect target for the manipulative “family” of a gang.
The neglect, unstable housing, out of home placements, family disorganization and overall household dysfunction Jarrell has faced because of both of his parents’ individual incarcerations and the resulting clear lack of supervision because of his absentee parents is evident in Jarrell’s ability to obtain a firearm and maintain his gang affiliation without any reported parental intervention. Before this crime was even committed, Jarrell Milton had five serious environmental Adverse Childhood Experiences, which leads us to safely be able to assume that the shooting was not simply due to his gang’s peer pressure (which I consider an extremely dismissive term for something so maladaptive), but also a result of the severe physiological trauma that Jarrell constantly endured by the age of 12.
Further traumatizing has been Jarrell’s experiences after being arrested. He had the post-traumatic stress of reliving what he had witnessed and allegedly committed, he had to flee 400 miles in order to evade capture and he was then shackled during his court appearance where he was told he was called a “danger to himself and others” and that he would be tried as an adult for murder and denied bail. Although it is new research that has yet to make it into legislative laws regarding the Juvenile Justice System, there is still solid evidence that shows the effectiveness of intervention and rehabilitation instead of incarceration of adolescents. An incarcerated youth is 8x more likely to commit suicide, 5x more likely to be sexually assault and has an increased rate of recidivism compared to a rehabilitated juvenile offender who is taught skills to help increase self-regulatory processes.
Just because people fear these children who commit violent crimes is no reason to forgo all of the new information available to us to better help rehabilitate those who commit these crimes. Children are children. Theres science now to back up the fact that children are physiologically different than adults. One of those differences is in the mental capabilities to make decisions and understand the ultimate consequences of their actions. Brains are not fully matured even into the teenage years and because of that they shouldn’t be held to full accountability for their behavior.
One of the major arguments against my thesis is that children from different environments, gender and genetic backgrounds reach neurobiological milestones at different times. Therefore, whats to say that one 13 year old has the mental capabilities to be held to an adequate level of culpability as an 18 year old. During the 1990’s there was a flux of violent crimes being committed by children, creating a media firestorm that created a “mini-predator” profile of these adolescents that commit adult crimes. The backlash was to treat these children as adults and having the legal system hold them accountable to adult standards. These legal practices haven’t changed much in the last quarter century, regardless of the new scientific research released about brain development and behaviorism.
Despite of scientific research, these advancements seem to have hindered advancement in the legal field regarding juvenile offenders. They take the argument that each child develops at different times, therefore there may be some cases in which a juvenile can be held accountable for their behavior above all other reasons. While it is undeniably true that development is a spectrum, there are certain universal truths: the prefrontal cortex is not matured until well into your twenties. That should be the end of the conversation about maturity but it isn’t.
The fact remains that a juvenile is simply not equipped developmentally to be culpable for their crimes. They don’t have the mental faculties to be able to make informed, rational decisions because they have no independent self-regulation. A person’s self-regulation is supposed to be learned through positive, nurturing, learned experiences throughout childhood. Jarrell Milton never had the affirmative influence of a stable family unit which clearly has already greatly affected him. Jarrell’s grandmother commented on his arrest by saying that he “never had a chance” because of his environment. To possibly incarcerate a 12-year-old for the rest of his life instead of providing him with the rehabilitation to teach him the social-emotional skills he missed growing up in the home he was exposed to would be a crime.
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.
K. M. Banham Bridges, Factors Contributing to Juvenile Delinquency, 17 Am. Inst. Crim. L. & Criminology 531 (1926-1927)
Scialabba, Nicole. “Should Juveniles Be Charged as Adults in the Criminal Justice System?” American Bar Association, 3 Oct. 2016.
Anda, , Filitti, Bremener, Walker, and Whitfield. “The enduring effects of abuse and related adverse experiences in childhood.” European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, vol. 256, no. 3, Apr. 2006, pp. 174-86. Accessed 14 Feb. 2017.