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When teens are accused of the most serious crimes: Part I

All of us can remember things we said or did as teenagers that we now regret. And this doesn't just apply to tasteless fashion choices. At some point, every teenager makes mistakes and engages in behavior that they wish they could take back. Sometimes, they see the error of their ways immediately. Other times, they only come to regret their choices after earning the wisdom of adulthood.

Mistakes are a fundamental part of growing up. Brain research has shown that during the teen years, individuals tend to be more impulsive and less able to predict the consequences of their actions. They are also susceptible to peer pressure. In other words, we now recognize that children and teenagers are ultimately less culpable than adults and more capable of reform.

Our criminal justice system is supposed to account for these differences in how it prosecutes and sentences young offenders. But in many cases - especially those involving serious crimes - teenaged offenders are tried as adults and sentenced accordingly.

As an example, consider the sentence of life without the possibility of parole. At the age of 14 or 15, a serious crime could seal a young person's fate for life. Can you imagine forfeiting the rest of your life for an act committed as a young, impulsive teenager?

Is such a sentence justified in light of what we now know about teenage brain development? Is someone who commits murder at age 14 better able to tell right from wrong than a 14-year-old who engages in shoplifting? The crimes are obviously very different. But how different are the two teenagers?

Some crimes are so severe that they warrant an equally severe sentence. But how much consideration should be given to a defendant's age? This is not an easy question to answer, but the U.S. Supreme Court has provided guidance in recent years.

Please check back as we continue this discussion in our next post.

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Robert D. DiDio
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