Monday, February 9, 2009

The Benefit of the Doubt

When he was a teenager, I used to tease one of my sons by telling him that I was “waiting for his brain to grow in.” Little did I know that was literally true. Among many things scientists have found out in recent years about the brain is that in some people—especially males—the cerebral cortex doesn’t fully mature until the mid-twenties.

From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes perfect sense. Historically, we humans have depended on young males to venture out from the security of their homes and kill dragons, if necessary, to protect their communities. The cerebral cortex (or, more specifically, the frontal lobes) represents the area where attention, thinking ahead, planning, and predicting consequences occur. Far a warrior, questioning things and thinking too far ahead are not necessarily desirable traits!

Before this part of the brain is fully developed, many young people tend to be easily distracted, impulsive, and irresponsible. All this explains why, for generations, mothers and grandmothers have been consoling jilted and disappointed teenaged girls by telling them “boys mature more slowly than girls.”

Some youngsters are well into their twenties when they gain control of their actions and become aware of the consequences of cause-and-effect. This is one of many realities about human behavior that has not penetrated the collective consciousness of the American justice system. As one tragic result of many years of “tough on crime” attitudes and legislation, children in this country are all too often punished for life for mistakes they made as kids.

Despite juvenile justice laws that are often ignored, kids are too often locked up with adult offenders, jailed for life, or even subjected to the death penalty for crimes committed in their early teens--or even younger. For kids who commit even petty crimes, many are tried as adults and saddled with the broad and damning label of “felon” for the rest of their lives.

I was bemused by a statement in a recent AP article about the incarceration of kids. It’s hard to get information about which states are out of compliance with federal laws protecting kids, the article said, because the agency in charge of oversight (the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention) doesn’t want to “embarrass” the noncompliant states. Here’s an example of the kind of protectionism and lack of transparency that has characterized business-as-usual in the nation’s capitol for a long, long time.

Be that as it may, we Americans will soon have an opportunity to rethink the way we deal with children in trouble. The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to revisit the 1974 Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Act. When they do, I hope more Americans than usual will take an informed interest in the proceedings and encourage legislators to remember that when it comes to children, as Abraham Lincoln said, “Mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.”