Teenagers locked up unfairly, scientists find

Decision-making areas of the brain may not be fully developed in teenagers, according to newly published research. Does that mean they are too young to be punished for crimes?

Children are being punished for crimes unfairly, according to a newly published report. Not because they did not do what they are accused of doing, but because they are too young to be asked to take the blame.

In Britain, ten is the crucial age: the moment when a child becomes responsible for their actions in the eyes of the law – and can face punishment. In other countries, even younger people can be called criminals: in some US states, even six-year-olds can be convicted of certain crimes.

High-profile incidents have fuelled debate on this issue. In 1993, two ten-year-old boys, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, murdered two-year-old James Bulger. They were sentenced to custody until old enough to go to prison. Their defence claimed they were too young to understand their actions.

More recently, the number of children imprisoned in Britain shot up after the London riots in August. Teenagers involved the looting were given long sentences, which some prosecutors say were unduly harsh.

According to neuroscientist Nicholas Mackintosh, a professor at the University of Cambridge, young people may not be fully in control of their actions until they hit their twenties. In a scientific assessment published on Tuesday, he claims that advances in science show crucial parts of the brain used to make decisions are sometimes still developing even at the end of a person’s teens.

In particular, the areas of the brain which seek stimulation are fully functioning, while the areas which help to control impulses are not.

This, says Mackintosh, should change the way we think about criminal responsibility. After all, most people understand responsibility to be bound up with choice: you can’t be responsible for something you didn’t choose to do.

If teenagers’ brains aren’t fully equipped to make decisions, they shouldn’t be allowed to take all the blame when they do the wrong thing.

Responsible adults?

There are some who argue that in fact, none of us are really responsible for our actions at all. Even after our brains have developed, they say, we are still prisoners of our own psychological nature. We never really make decisions freely; instead we choose automatically, depending on our changing moods, our natural brain-states and the society and conditions in which we live.

Nonsense, most people will respond. Of course we are responsible for our actions, and that includes teenagers too. They may be inexperienced in life, but they aren’t fools, and they are certainly old enough to be able to tell right from wrong. Those who commit crimes deserve to be punished just as those who do well deserve to be praised.

You Decide

  1. Do you think teenagers are responsible for their actions?
  2. When judging crimes, should the law take people’s particular circumstances into account?

Activities

  1. Write an account of what you think responsibility means. What might count as a good excuse for having committed a crime?
  2. Research some of the reaction to the London riots of August 2011. Do you think sentences given to young rioters were too harsh?

Some People Say...

“Those who commit crime should be sent to prison, no matter how old.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why should children be excused? A crime has still been committed?
That’s true. But it is so difficult to conclude that a child is aware of what he or she is doing. They do not have fully developed, adult minds. The law errs on the side of caution when it cannot be certain, because the accused is innocent until proven guilty.
How could economic conditions be responsible for a person’s behaviour?
People can be driven to act in a way that they might not have done, had circumstances been different. In the UK, there is a big gap between the rich and the poor, and this can cause serious resentment. Nobody born into a poor area chooses to be so, and it is therefore difficult to conclude that they are wholly responsible for crimes that emerge from their hardship.

Word Watch

Neuroscientist
A neuroscientist is someone who studies the working of the brain. In recent years, neuroscience has advanced quickly because of new scientific techniques which allow researchers to detect electrical activity within the brain. That allows them to work out which parts of the brain are responsible for which mental abilities.
Something you didn’t choose to do
A particularly frightening example of this is a condition where people commit acts of violence while sleeping. There have been cases where friends and family have been badly beaten by a sleeping person.
Prisoners of our own psychological nature
This view is called ‘psychological determinism’. It holds that whatever we do is an unavoidable consequence of our psychological make-up and personal characteristics – therefore not our fault. For example, a thief might say he stole not because he was a bad person but because it was in his nature to do so.

Subjects

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