The National Institute of Justice hosted a conference on justice-involved youth and the new science in brain development led by Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason, in addition to a panel of experts. Attorney General Lynch introduced a wide array of restorative programs and ideas to reduce recidivism among late teens and young adults based on new brain developments. Assistant Attorney General Mason moderated the panel. The conference was primarily concerned with youth and young adults ages 18 to 24 who are in the criminal justice system.
“Young adults are disproportionately likely to be arrested in general; disproportionately likely to be arrested for violent acts in particular; and more likely than any other age group to commit additional crimes within three years,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch began on the morning of September 8, 2015 at the Justice-Involved Young Adults segment of the National Institute of Justice Conference. “Research indicates that as young adults age through their late teens and early 20s, they experience a period of rapid and profound brain development. In addition to providing insight into why young adults act the way they do, brain science also indicates that we may have a significant opportunity, even after the teenage years, to exert a positive influence and reduce future criminality through appropriate interventions.”
According to Vincent Schiraldi, Senior Advisor at New York City’s Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, adolescence changes through eras and should be based on intellectual milestones rather than age. Elizabeth Cauffman, Psychology Department of the University of California-Irvine, explained that the frontal lobe of the brain, in charge of decision making, is not fully developed until the age of 25. The ability to make intellectual decisions peaks at the age of 16, meaning that a 16 year old has the same cognitive functions to reason as a 30 year old. However, maturity, or a balance of decisions and emotion, does not peak until 25 when the brain is fully developed. So while a 16 year old has the full intellectual capacity to make a decision, the decision relies on impulse controls that are not yet fully developed. At the age of 25, it is expected that these young adults can completely reason through those decisions with a complete balance of cognitive function and emotion.
Now that scientists better understand brain development, law enforcement and policy makers can use this information to inform services and programs to help young adults caught in the criminal justice system. Panelists suggested that demographics such as family structure or income do not need to hinder the success of a young adult if they have hope and a will to change. Today, youth programs within the criminal justice system can be elaborate and are informed by new developments in psychology and science. Youth receive tutoring and education assistance, accountability, substance abuse counseling and more.
Glenn Martin, a previous youth offender and now founder of JustLeadershipUSA, stated, “You know, people tell me I’m the exception and I simply respond ‘I had exceptional programs.”