Journal Issue: Juvenile Justice Volume 18 Number 2 Fall 2008
A Developmental Perspective on Juvenile Justice
In the first article of this volume, Elizabeth Scott, of Columbia Law School, and I offer a developmental perspective on juvenile justice that lays the groundwork for the articles that follow. After briefly reviewing the history of American juvenile justice policy and the events that transformed society's view of adolescent offenders from immature children who should not be punished for their misdeeds into fully mature individuals who should be held to the same standards of responsibility as adults, we argue that contemporary research on the science of adolescent development points to the need for a new model. In our view, the bright line distinction between children and adults that works well in many parts of the law has not worked well in regulating juvenile crime. Indeed, we suggest that forcing courts to view adolescents as children or as adults has led to poor policymaking that has either threatened public safety (by treating adolescent offenders too leniently) or jeopardized the future prospects of young people who have gotten into trouble (by treating them too harshly).
In place of the current regime, we propose a model in which adolescents are held responsible for their antisocial acts, but with the degree of their responsibility mitigated by their diminished decision-making capacity, their susceptibility to peer influence, and their unformed character, all of which make them less responsible for their conduct than are adults who commit similar offenses. Our contention that most adolescent crime is the product of developmental immaturity—a conclusion borne out by research showing that very few adolescent offenders grow into adult criminals—has implications not only for our view of juveniles' culpability but also for our view of how to sanction young people. Punishing adolescents for their misdeeds and protecting the public from juveniles who are at high risk to re-offend are essential components of sensible juvenile justice policy, but it is important not to lose sight of the fact that most adolescent offenders will desist from crime as they mature psychologically, merely in the course of normal development. To protect society in the long run and to promote social welfare, the response to juveniles' antisocial behavior must not imperil their development into productive adulthood.