Advocating for children to be treated like children

What's At Stake

Children are different than adults. Despite this self-evident truth, many people in the juvenile legal system treat children as small adults—subjecting them to harsher penalties without considering their development and opportunities for growth. Several studies have revealed how adolescent development shapes youth behavior in a way that directly impacts culpability. Accordingly, it is critical for all stakeholders involved in the juvenile legal system to recognize, consider, and address how the development of young people affects their behaviors, decision-making, and perceptions of safety.

For youth defenders specifically, adolescent development research is an integral component of practice that must inform advocacy at every stage of a delinquency proceeding. Developmental factors implicate every aspect of a delinquency case, from culpability to mitigation and the appropriateness of proposed services. In addition, adolescent development research is critical in shaping a youth defender’s interaction with clients. Defenders must be cognizant of their client’s developmental stage to effectively and appropriately communicate and strategize with their clients.


What You Need To Know

U.S. Supreme Court’s Recognition of Developmental Sciences

The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized developmental research in a number of cases where the Court held that children necessitate different treatment due to their adolescence. In Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005), the Court acknowledged for the first time scientific and sociological studies that confirm that young people have a lack of maturity and underdeveloped sense of responsibility, and that they are more vulnerable and susceptible to peer pressure compared to adults. Accordingly, the Court held that developmental science behind adolescence must be used as a mitigating factor. Subsequently, the Court continued to rely on developmental research to support rulings that children must be treated differently than adults: Graham v. Florida, 130 S.Ct. 2011 (2010), J.D.B. v. North Carolina, 564 U.S. 261 (2011), Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), and Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718 (2016).


Developmental Research

The National Academy of Sciences released a report in 2013 that reviews advances in behavioral and neuroscience research and connects the research with the need for youth justice reform. The report calls for the implementation of reform through a developmental lens and has been critical in pushing for the incorporation of adolescent development research in the juvenile legal system. In addition, several studies have been published that examine the implications of adolescent development for young people facing juvenile court, ranging from their susceptibility to peer influences to their cognitive development in understanding waivers. For a list of a pertinent studies, please go to [insert hyperlink on resources for child and adolescent development studies, if possible –]

DOJ Statement of Interest

The Department of Justice issued a Statement of Interest in a civil lawsuit, Kenny v. Wilson, regarding the constitutionality of vague school-based offenses. In recognition of adolescent development research, the DOJ asserted “student behavior is often a natural outgrowth of children’s diminished maturity and their lack of experience, perspective, and judgment.” Accordingly, the DOJ called for increased protections around the disproportionate criminalization of children’s developmentally appropriate behavior—essentially arguing that we need to let kids be kids.

Our Current Efforts

YDAP Training

Training is the cornerstone of ensuring that young people facing juvenile court will be equipped with a competent and zealous advocate to effectively defend their case. To ensure that defenders across the country are prepared to utilize adolescent development research in the defense of children, the Gault Center provides specialized and tailored training on developmental science and how to integrate the research into advocacy through our Youth Defender Advocacy Program (YDAP). [hyperlink to YDAP page if possible]

Judicial Training

The Gault Center partnered with the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) to release a tool on how judges can apply principles of adolescent development in delinquency proceedings. Following the release of this resource, the Gault Center worked with judges to develop a seven-part training series to guide juvenile court judges on how to incorporate adolescent development in the cases before them. The Gault Center continues to engage judges through training to advance the principles of adolescent development in the treatment of children.

What Can You Do?

Advancing the principles of adolescent development for all stakeholders in the juvenile legal system is critical in protecting children’s constitutional rights. Below are ways you can connect and engage with the youth defense community to develop strategies around ensuring that children are treated differently in light of their development in juvenile court.

  • Join our listservs [hyperlink to listserv page]
  • Participate in one of our training programs [hyperlink to our training page]
  • Connect with our Regional Centers [hyperlink to our regional centers page]
  • Request technical assistance from the Gault Center [hyperlink to our TA or contact us page]

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