Criminal Legal Responsibility: When an Adolescent Commits a Crime

May 26, 2021

By Jill K. Sanders, Esq.

An adolescent is less likely to appreciate the consequences of his/her actions. While this isn’t an excuse for their behavior, it does raise the question about what the appropriate punishment should be. Should a 14-year-old be punished the same way a 45-year-old would be? Here, we discuss why the adolescent brain is different, as well as recent scientific research and updated case law on the topic.


What’s Different About the Adolescent Brain

The adolescent brain is still developing and is not the same as an adult’s. In particular, a youth’s brain is highly susceptible to rewards (i.e., “Do this for me, and I’ll give you money!”). And kids are much more likely to be influenced by their peers.

Youths are also more likely to engage in risky behavior, even though they can recognize the risk. This means that while a youth may know something is wrong, it is less likely that they will heed the risk associated with engaging in a behavior.

Researchers have also found that the rate of brain development varies among individuals. As such, the brains of kids of the same age are not always the same. Thus, “bright line” age cut-offs may not fit what we know about brain maturity. In the law, there are age cut-offs for drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana, consenting to sex, eligibility for voting, and more.


Research on the Adolescent in the Criminal Legal System

Recidivism refers to the tendency that a person will re-offend. For youths, the factors which predict re-offending are similar to that of adults. Yet there are some important distinctions.

Research has found substance abuse is a predictor of re-offense. Other factors include a prior diagnosis of conduct disorder, prior suicide attempts, age, and number of prior court cases. And, instability in a youth’s daily routine can also impact his/her likelihood of recidivism.

It has been found that traditional interventions – such as jail and probation – may not always address a youth’s needs. Moreover, such punishments may actually increase the likelihood of recidivism. Instead, for many adolescents individual and family therapy have been found to produce good results.


Case Law on the Science of Adolescent Brains

In May of 2021, New York’s highest court ruled on a case involving testimony of an expert on the science of adolescent brain development and behavior. As to the facts, the 14-year-old defendant was charged with murder. He had fired a gun at rival gang members on a bus and killed a bystander. Then, he chased his rivals on the street while continuing to shoot at them.

At trial, the defendant sought to introduce testimony by an expert witness. The witness would have testified as to the science on a youth’s brain, particularly about a teenager’s impulsiveness. However, the trial court denied the request without conducting a Frye hearing to determine the admissibility of scientific evidence. The Court of Appeals affirmed. According to the Court’s decision, “Under the particular facts of this case, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying defendant’s request to permit the proposed expert witness testimony.”