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Do You Purport That There Is a Strong Sense of Validity in Explaining Juvenile Delinquency and Behaviors Through Development and Neuroscience?

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In the United States, as in most other societies, the rate at which young people engage in antisocial behavior begins to increase substantially around the time of puberty, often increasing by a factor of 10 and peaking during late adolescence or early adulthood. Although a small share of people engage in antisocial behavior at every life stage, from early childhood through late adulthood, for the majority of people the rate of criminal behavior declines steadily as they enter their 20s and 30s.

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A series of recent landmark cases in the U.S. Supreme Court has evolved to change our legal responses to juvenile offending. They have abolished the death penalty for crimes committed during adolescence, found mandatory life-without-parole sentences for murder in violation of the 8th Amendment, and eliminated life-without-parole sentences for crimes less than murder. In Massachusetts, life sentences for juveniles were ruled unconstitutional, and the review of cases in which those sentences were given in the past has already begun

A significant part of the argument for these decisions included an understanding of adolescent brain development. While society’s attitudes will ultimately dictate the shape of law, science can be used to confirm and dispel common ideas about teenage behavior to forge a more scientifically sound and financially viable system for adolescent reform. Scientists know that the adolescent brain is still developing, that it is highly subject to reward- and peer-influence, and that its rate of development varies widely across the population. They have developed basic tools that offer data with which to judge the potential for juvenile desistance, recidivism, and rehabilitation. With its ability to examine the workings of the teenage brain, neuroscience is improving our understanding of adolescents, and potentially, juvenile offenders. Through their window into the brain, neuroscientists understand, for example, that adolescents mature at markedly varied rates.

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A defendant is criminally responsible for his action only if he is shown to have engaged in a guilty act—actus reus (eg for larceny, voluntarily taking someone else's property without permission)—while possessing a guilty mind—mens rea (eg knowing that he had taken someone else's property without permission, intending not to return it)—and lacking affirmative defenses (eg the insanity defense or self-defense). We therefore first review neuroscientific studies that bear on the nature of voluntary action, and so could, potentially, tell us something of importance about the actus reus of crimes (Roper v. Simmons, 2005)

Then we look at studies of intention, perception of risk, and other mental states that matter to the mens rea of crimes. And, last, we discuss studies of self-control, which might be relevant to some formulations of the insanity defense. As we show, to date, very little is known about the brain that is of significance for understanding criminal responsibility. But there is no reason to think that neuroscience cannot provide evidence that will challenge our understanding of criminal responsibility. The question is very much worth asking, and while some work has already been done in this direction, as described in the previous sections of this article, there is much more work ahead for a confidently positive answer (Kateri McRae et al., 2010).

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Given these points, the convergence of adolescent brain science and the legal system is essential for fair and accurate trials and sentencing of juveniles

Juveniles’ developmental context plays a huge role in their legal culpability and should be considered in court. The recent Supreme Court rulings have paved the way for using brain science in court in juvenile cases.

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Roper v. Simmons (543 U.S. 551 (2005)), Graham v. Florida (130 S.Ct. 2011 (2010)), Miller v. Alabama (132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012)).

Todd A. Hare, Colin F. Camerer, & Antonio Rangel, Self-Control in Decision-Making Involves Modulation of the vmPFC Valuation System, 324 science 646, 648 (2009).

Kateri McRae et al., The Neural Bases of Distraction and Reappraisal, 22 J. cogn. neurosci. 248, 262 (2010)

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