Studies Show That Teens Are Less Blameworthy Than Adults

In the early part of the decade, researchers for the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice found that teenagers are less blameworthy than adults, and that their capacities change significantly over the course of adolescence.

The MacArthur Foundation Research Network recognized that legal sanctions for misbehavior should not be based only on the harm a youth causes, but on the youth’s culpability.

Most people would agree. Every day, different defendants receive different sentences even if they caused the same harm. This is because defendants differ in culpability, or blameworthiness. At no other time are these differences more pronounced than during adolescence, when youths struggle with their immaturity, un-developed decision-making abilities, impulsiveness, lack of future orientation and susceptibility to negative peer pressure.

Recent brain imaging technology reinforces the adolescent development literature. From the prefrontal cortex to the limbic area, the teenage brain is undergoing dramatic changes during adolescence in ways that affect teens’ ability to reason, to weigh consequences for their decisions and to delay gratification long enough to make careful short- and long-term choices.

In their 2008 book “Rethinking Juvenile Justice,” MacArthur researchers Dr. Laurence Steinberg and Elizabeth Scott concluded that young people under age 15 should never be tried as adults.

Steinberg and Scott make clear that mitigation because of youth — the fact that teens are less blameworthy than adults — is not the same as an excuse. That is, trying youths in juvenile court is not the same as absolving them of responsibility.

Ten years under juvenile court supervision, for an 11-year-old, is a very long time. The point is that while youths should be punished for their crimes, it should be done in a developmentally appropriate way. Any parent would know that it makes little sense to punish a 10-year-old the same as a 17-year-old.

Do you agree?

If you know of a juvenile being charged as an adult please contact Samantha Moffett at 248 624 5500 or


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Filed under Juvenile Crime

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