Imagine having your entire life defined by the worst thing you did when you were a teenager. What if the decisions of your 15-year-old self now made it impossible for you to have a family, a career, or any life at all?
In the U.S. Supreme Court’s April decision on Jones v. Mississippi, the majority of justices made it much easier for teens who commit serious crimes to pay with the rest of their lives.
As neuroscientists and psychologists who research brain development and decision-making of teenagers, we know that this ruling goes against not only common sense but decades of research and science on the teenage brain. Hundreds of studies that investigate the brains and behaviors of teenagers make it clear: Teens are different from adults. To ignore this when sentencing them is wrong.
At the heart of the Court’s recent decision was a terrible murder committed by a Mississippi resident, Brett Jones, when he was 15 years old. The horrific nature of the crime is not under debate. What must be considered—what the science reminds us to examine—is the capacity of youth to change.
Imaging studies that explore the anatomy and inner workings of the teen brain tell us it is not done maturing. It processes emotions differently than the adult brain, especially in stressful contexts. Hallmarks of adult behavior, like planning ahead, controlling emotions in intense situations, weighing the possible consequences of an action before taking it, and delaying gratification are connected to this continued brain development.
An immature brain does not absolve teens of their bad decisions. But we also know that the brain develops significantly well into the mid-20s. This is particularly true during the teen years, when the brain grows new cells and makes new connections. Individuals gain new skills and change how they interact with others because of these neurobiological changes.
Ignoring Science in Rush to Judge Teens
Prior to Jones v. Mississippi, the Supreme Court gave weight to such scientific evidence.
Research on the teen brain has informed multiple landmark decisions. Prior rulings considered life without parole to be a cruel and unusual form of punishment for the majority of youth, acknowledging their lesser culpability and capacity to change. The Court acknowledged the tendency for the young to age out of problematic behaviors that result from “transient immaturity.”
The Court decided that juveniles could only be sentenced to life without parole for murder. Even then, the sentencing judge was required to fully consider that children are different from adults and find the young person to be incapable of change.
Last month, however, the Court shifted on this in Jones v. Mississippi. While it still held that judges are required to consider youth as a mitigating factor, it opened the door for more youths’ lives to be cut short unnecessarily.
The brain and behavior can and do change over the course of development. Brett Jones’ own behavior speaks to his ability to change. Correctional officers at Jones’ prison testified about his rehabilitation and extraordinary record in prison. Even the victim’s wife agreed, underscoring that Jones, like other youth, is indeed redeemable and can work towards atoning for his heinous acts.
By allowing judges to ignore such considerations when sentencing a young person to die behind bars, the recent Supreme Court decision promises to further inequity. Race and geography will now become the prime factors in determining life without parole for youth.
Since 2012, Louisiana has sentenced 57 percent of eligible juvenile offenders to life without parole compared to fewer than 2 percent in Pennsylvania. Black and Brown youth are much more likely than white youth to be sentenced to die in prison.
Giving judges more discretion will make this worse, because people incorrectly view Black kids as older and more culpable.
With the Supreme Court actively disregarding the research, we must now rely upon state court judges to apply science when sentencing youth.
Today, over 25 states ban this type of sentence for young people. More states are considering similar legislation in upcoming sessions. They and Congress should be further empowered to pass legislation ensuring that no young people in the United States be sentenced to die behind bars.
Decades of cruel and unusual punishment through life without parole should not be their only new experience. We urge those who believe in common sense and science to ask their legislators to ban life without parole in youth sentencing.
Editor’s Note: This essay was written by a group of seven developmental scientists with expertise in psychology, neuroscience, and youth justice. See authors below.
Additional Reading: “Earning Freedom: A Tale of Redemption Behind Bars,” The Crime Report, May 28, 2021.
Jamie Hanson, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and a Research Scientist at the Learning Research & Development Center, was the lead writer.
The following also contributed: Alexandra Cohen a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Psychology at New York University; Erika Fountain, an Assistant Professor of Psychology and director of the Youth Justice Lab at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; Emily Haney-Caron, an Assistant Professor of Psychology and director of the Youth Law and Psychology Lab at John Jay College of Criminal Justice; Catherine Insel, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Shohamy Lab at Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute; and Gail Rosenbaum, a staff scientist on the Behavioral Insights Team at Geisinger Health.