As every parent of a teenager knows, the teenage brain is different from the adult brain. All jokes aside, some of these differences have neurobiological and neuropsychological underpinnings. Although the adolescent brain is fully grown in size it is a long way from mature. Along with everything else in the body the brain changes significantly in adolescence.
According to recent studies and neuroimaging research the prefrontal cortex of the human brain, which controls planning, emotion, impulse control, and the ability to assess future consequences, is not fully developed until one is in their early- to mid-twenties. This research confirms that the distinction between teenagers and adults is more than one of age. It is one of physiological maturation.
Is an immature brain an excuse for committing a crime? The hot-button issue in juvenile criminal justice today is how to deal with the physical reality of brain development while demanding accountability for crimes committed by teens.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF A BRAIN
A key difference between adolescent and adult brains concerns the frontal lobe. During maturation, the human brain develops from front to back. The largest part of the brain, the frontal lobes, are in the front part of the cerebrum, the most sophisticated area of the brain. The size of the frontal lobes does not change significantly during the adolescent years but there are dramatic changes in their composition. A small area of the frontal lobes, the prefrontal cortices, are the last areas of the brain to evolve during the development process.
The adolescent brain truly is a work in progress. Two processes are taking place at a rapid rate: pruning, the process by which unnecessary nerve synapses (gray matter) in the frontal lobe are eliminated) as well as myelination, involving white matter that envelops connections to stabilize them. This conversion of gray to white matter is critical to making the brain's operation more efficient and developing the neural networks regulating behavior. The frontal lobes regulate the amygdala, the brain's emotional center, which controls anger, fear, recklessness, and gut responses.
A fully developed prefrontal cortex helps adults predict the consequences of their actions. In adolescents, the less developed prefrontal cortex affects the adolescent's ability for mental reasoning, decision-making, and assessment of consequences.
WHERE TO DRAW THE LINE
What are the implications of adolescent brain development on the juvenile justice system? Because their brains are not fully mature, teens have a more limited capacity to self-regulate their impulses. Teens do not handle social pressure and other stresses the way adults do. However, despite brain immaturity, the fact remains that the vast majority of teens do not commit Columbine-type massacres and other forms of violent crime.
Is the greater question what is wrong with our country that we have such a pervasive problem with violent juvenile crime? Other developed countries do not have anywhere near our violent juvenile crime rate.
It's easy to know what to do with a teen such as Jean Pierre Orliewcz. Orliewcz (pictured right) was recently tried in the Wayne County Circuit Court in Detroit for stabbing to death an acquaintance and then telling him "just let it take over" as his victim lay dying in a pool of blood on a garage floor. Orliewcz then beheaded his victim and used a blow torch in an attempt to obliterate the victim's fingerprints and further conceal his identity. He later told authorities that he was "excited" by the idea of killing someone and getting away with it. At his sentencing last month, the judge told Orlewicz "There is a difference between mental illness and evil. You are tantamount to evil."
Clearly we cannot allow juveniles to be exonerated from any consequences for their criminal actions. An immature brain should not entitle juvenile offenders to a "get out of jail free card." Teenagers who demonstrate a vicious and callous disregard for human life must not be allowed to blame their actions on an undeveloped brain and walk away from their crime. But what about the criminal cases that are less clear-cut and do not involve the taking of a human life?
Neuroimaging research alone cannot determine an adolescent's criminal responsibility. Imaging is not diagnostic and you cannot do a scan to settle moral and legal questions. The big issue is: How do we balance necessary deterrence and the need to protect society with the best practices that encourage rehabilitation of a juvenile offender? There are no easy answers. Statements made in this post are my own and not intended to reflect the views, opinions, or position of the Michigan Attorney General or the Michigan Department of Attorney General.