Child Development and the Court: Justices Look to Science to Determine Children’s Culpability
The following article was featured as the Special Report in the September 2012 issue of the Office's newsletter Developments. To download a PDF of the issue, click here.

In striking down mandatory sentences of life in prison without parole for juveniles in June, the U.S. Supreme Court once again found guidance in scientific research that over the past few decades has expanded the understanding of brain development and children’s behavior.

The court in its most recent ruling involving severe sentences for children under the age of 18 convicted in adult courts found that the criminal culpability of adolescents, in particular, is diminished by age-related deficits in their abilities to control impulsive behavior, grasp the consequences of risk-taking and make sound judgments.

In doing so, the divided court followed precedent set seven years earlier when justices prohibited sentencing juveniles to death relying on similar research in shaping their argument. In 2010, child development research also played a key role in the Court’s decision to ban sentences of life without parole for children convicted of crimes other than homicide.

The Court’s June ruling in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs affects the federal law and statutes in 29 states that allow sentences of life-without-parole mandatory for some juveniles convicted of murder in adult court. Pennsylvania is among them. The Court accepted as fact that an estimated 2,500 U.S. inmates are currently serving sentences of life without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles.

Nowhere else in the world are such numbers found. In fact, sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole is prohibited under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The United States and Somalia are the only nations that have not ratified the treaty.

The recent Supreme Court ruling, however, further limits the severity of punishments that can be imposed on juveniles convicted of the most serious of crimes. Still, the justices, while striking down mandatory life-without-parole sentences, left open the question of whether life-without-parole can be imposed on juveniles convicted of homicide when judges are allowed to consider mitigating circumstances, such as a child’s developmental stage, prior to sentencing.

Child Development and Culpability
In their June decision, the five-justice majority held that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment. A key point of their argument was that such sentences represent a mismatch between the culpability of a class of offenders—in this case, children under the age of 18—and the severity of the punishment, which they contend is prohibited under the amendment.

Recognition that children are different from adults in ways that determine their judgment and behavior—and, therefore, should be treated differently in criminal matters —is a cornerstone of the U.S. juvenile justice system, which began to emerge in the late 19th Century. Each state has over the years developed a system of separate juvenile courts and specialized facilities, such as juvenile detention centers, training programs and other structured environments focused on rehabilitation rather than punishment.

Such trends began to shift from the late 1980s through 1994, when the nation witnessed a sharp increase in juvenile crime, particularly violent crime, which was largely driven by an increase in drug-related violence. The rise in violence led to a notion advanced by the news media and a few academics that there was a new breed of violent and incorrigible juvenile “super predators,” a generation of young offenders more cold-hearted and violent than their predecessors and less amenable to rehabilitation.

States reacted by enacting laws that challenged the juvenile justice system’s focus on reform and rehabilitation and allowed for more punitive action to be taken against serious offenders, most often by making it easier or mandatory to try juveniles in adult court for violent or serious crimes. Meanwhile, juvenile crime rates had already begun to drop. Between 1994 and 1998, for example, juvenile arrests for Violent Crime Index offenses—murder, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assaulted—fell 19 percent, compared to a 6 percent decline in adult arrests for similar felonies. 

Tougher laws for juveniles continued to be enacted, however. Today, all states have some mechanism to move juveniles into adult criminal court. The most common is the judicial waiver, which 46 states have adopted, including Pennsylvania. This authorizes or requires juvenile court judges to waive jurisdiction over certain cases involving minors to allow them to be prosecuted in adult criminal courts. Use of judicial waivers increased 83% between 1985 and 1994.

At the same time, other justice system trends made it more difficult for juveniles tried as adults to be afforded leniency based on arguments of diminished culpability. Laws that set sentencing guidelines swept the nation. Such statutes limit judges in considering evidence that might mitigate the sentence of convicted offenders by prescribing a range of punishments to be followed and by setting mandatory minimum sentences for specific crimes. In such cases, a juvenile’s age, educational level, developmental factors, emotional maturity and family history have limited, if any, impact on the sentence.

Developmental Challenges
Developments in neuroscience, psychology, social science and other fields provide insight into children’s behavior that the Supreme Court in recent years has come to recognize as important in determining the culpability of juveniles convicted of serious crimes.

Adolescents who commit crimes do so during a tumultuous stage in their development that is marked by profound biological, psychological, emotional and social changes.
Puberty, for example, is accompanied by physical changes and the onset of sexual maturity, but it also sparks new drives, impulses, emotions, motivations, changes in arousal, and behaviors and experiences that challenge an adolescent’s self-regulation abilities. Changes in arousal and motivation tend to outpace more slowly developing self-regulation abilities—a situation scientists liken to starting the engine of a car with an inexperienced and unskilled driver behind the wheel.

Much of the brain develops during the first few years of life, shaped by both biology and experience. However, important stages of develop continue through a child’s adolescent and teenage years.

Recent research reveals that several key regions of the brain, including areas of the frontal cortex and the cerebellum, undergo remodeling during adolescence. These studies demonstrate that much of the brain development during adolescence occurs in the regions and systems that play critical roles in regulating behavior and emotion and in perceiving and evaluating risk. In short, the primitive or instinctual part of the brain develops before the parts of the brain that control reasoning and allow people to think before they act.

Studies that have examined the brain using magnetic resonance imaging show that adolescents use their brains differently than adults. Adolescents, for example, tend to rely more on the instinctual parts of the brain, such as the amygdala, and less on advanced areas associated with rational thinking, such as the frontal lobes.
Researchers have also found that risk taking and poorly regulated behavior tend to lessen as the brain develops, suggesting that as children mature they become more amenable to change.

Miller v. Alabama & Jackson v. Hobbs
The majority opinion striking down mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs notes that the Court recognizes that brain research and other scientific evidence raises questions about a child’s culpability. “Our decisions rested not only on common sense—on what ‘any parent knows’—but on science and social science as well,” said Justice Elena Kagan, in writing the majority opinion, which was joined by Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

The cases involved two 14-year-olds who had been convicted of homicide in two separate incidents. In Miller v. Alabama, a 14-year-old and an older friend beat a man to death and set fire to his trailer after an evening of drinking and drug use. He was first charged as a juvenile, but his case was transferred to adult court, where a jury found him guilty of murder in the course of arson, which by state statute carries a mandatory sentence of life without parole. In Jackson v. Hobbs, a 14-year-old Arkansas boy was charged as an adult with capital felony murder and aggravated assault for taking part in a video store robbery during which one of his accomplices shot and killed the clerk. He was convicted of both charges. The murder conviction carried a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the chance of parole.

The majority of the Court wove together two strands of precedent to hold that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles violates the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. One argues that the amendment prohibits punishments that create a mismatch between the severity of the penalty and the culpability of a class of offenders. The other holds that the sentence of life without parole shares important characteristics with the death penalty, most notably that defendants who face severe sentences are entitled to individual consideration.

In support of the majority opinion, Justice Kagan repeatedly refers to Roper v. Simmons and Graham v. Florida, two previous Court rulings in cases involving juveniles who were given harsh punishment. In Roper, the Court banned sentencing juveniles to death. In Graham, the Court prohibited life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of crimes other than murder. Both, Kagan writes, “establish that children are constitutionally different from adults for the purpose of sentencing. Because of their diminished capacity and greater prospects for reform, we explained, ‘they are less deserving of the most severe punishments.’”

The basis of those findings was the lessons that science teaches about child development, which the cases embraced. For example, Roper and Graham relied on three significant gaps between juveniles and adults, Kagan wrote. “First, children have a ‘lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility,’ leading to recklessness, impulsivity and heedless risk-taking. Second, children are ‘more vulnerable … to negative influences and outside pressures,’ including from their family and peers; they have limited control over their environment and lack the ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings. And third, a child’s character is not as ‘well-formed’ as an adult’s; his traits are ‘less fixed’ and his actions less likely to be ‘evidence of irretrievable depravity.’”

Kagan, in her opinion, explains how scientific research has shaped the Court’s view of the culpability of children. “In Graham,” she writes, “we noted that ‘developments in psychology and brain science continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds’—for example, in ‘parts of the brain involved in behavior control.’ We reasoned that those findings—of transient rashness, proclivity of risk, and inability to assess consequences —both lessened a child’s ‘moral culpability’ and enhanced the prospect that, as the years go by and neurological development occurs, his ‘deficiencies will be reformed.’”

Chief Justice John G. Roberts, in a dissent joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito, Jr., points out that the fact that the federal government and 29 states impose mandatory life-without-parole sentences on juveniles makes it difficult to hold that such sentences constitute “unusual” punishment forbidden by the Eighth Amendment. He argues that the Court in such matters should defer to moral judgments made by state legislatures, which are better able to determine the seriousness of crimes and to assess what penalty is appropriate.

“In recent years,” Roberts writes, “our society has moved toward requiring that the murderer, his age notwithstanding, be imprisoned for the remainder of his life. Members of this Court may disagree with that choice. Perhaps science and policy suggest society should show greater mercy to young killers, giving them a greater chance to reform themselves at the risk that they will kill again. But that is not our decision to make. Neither the text of the Constitution nor our precedent prohibits legislatures from requiring that juvenile murderers be sentenced to life without parole.”

Justice Thomas, in a separate dissent, agrees that the degree of punishment is a matter for local governments, arguing that the Court in previously decided cases had erred in holding that the Eighth Amendment’s “cruel and unusual punishment” clause prohibits a mismatch between punishment and the culpability of defendants. “In short, it does not authorize courts to invalidate any punishment they deem disproportionate to the severity of the crime or to a particular class of offenders.” Instead, the clause “leaves the unavoidably moral question of who ‘deserves’ a particular non-prohibited method of punishment to the judgment of the legislatures that authorize the penalty.”

The majority, however, concluded that a mandatory sentence of life without parole prevents a judge from considering evidence critical to assessing a young defendant’s criminal culpability, including age-related developmental deficits, which is essential to deciding just punishment. And that, Justice Kagan said, violates the “foundational principle” of the Court’s previous rulings “that imposition of a State’s most severe penalties on juvenile offenders cannot proceed as though they were not children.”

U.S. Supreme Court (2012). Evan Miller, Petitioner 10–9646 V. Alabama; Kuntrell Jackson, Petitioner 10–9647 V. Ray Hobbs, Director, Arkansas Department Of Correction

This Special Report, written by Jeffery Fraser, is largely based on the publications cited above. It is not intended to be an original work but a summary for the convenience of our readers.

References noted in the text follow:
Snyder, H., & Sickmund, M. (1999). Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 1999 National Report. Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Snyder, H., & Sickmund, M. (2006). Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 2006 National Report. Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Dahl, R.E. (2004). Adolescent brain development: A period of vulnerabilities and opportunities. Annals of the New York Academy of Science, 1021, 1-22.