Young-Adult Criminals Challenging Life Sentences

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Appeals by inmates serving life prison terms in Pennsylvania based on crimes committed when they were 18, 19, and 20 years old have begun to reach the state’s highest court, reports One was filed by Charmaine Pfender, who was 18 when she shot a man she says was attempting to rape her at knifepoint, killing him. Such petitions argue that the immaturity and impulsivity that diminish younger teens’ culpability continue well into the 20s, as a person’s brain continues to develop. If successful, the appeals could have sweeping implications: More than half of Pennsylvania’s lifers entered the prison system between 18 and 25. That’s 2,763 inmates.  These arguments appear to be gaining traction elsewhere. An Illinois appeals court has granted a new sentencing hearing to Antonio House, who was 19 when he participated in a gang-related killing. A federal judge will hear arguments in the Connecticut case of Luis Noel Cruz, who was 18 when he participated in a murder.

Laurence Steinberg, a Temple University psychologist, says such arguments have a scientific basis. His research shows that while cognitive abilities mature by age 16, other parts of the brain mature later. Areas that influence criminal culpability, like impulsiveness, risk-aversion, and resistance to peer pressure, continue maturing well into the 20s. “The legal question is harder than the scientific question.” he says. “We have lots of age boundaries … that don’t make any sense from a scientific point of view. Why on earth would we let people drive when they’re 16, but not see sexy movies until they’re 17? Driving is a much more dangerous thing to do.” Some jurisdictions have set up young-adult courts, targeting those between 18 and 25 for consideration. San Francisco, Brooklyn, and Chicago have all launched such initiatives.

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