Adolescent Development

About This Issue

Courts have increasingly recognized that the science behind adolescent development must inform court process and youth justice. And, there are many studies examining the relationship between adolescent brain development and criminalized behavior. In order to represent youth as effectively as possible, defenders must be aware of this research and how to apply it in court and in their advocacy.

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).

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.

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.

You can read the NAS report and a collection of other research about adolescent development in our Resource Library, listed on the side of this page.

Our Position

Children are different from 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.

The Gault Center provides training for juvenile defenders on adolescent development through its Youth Defender Advocacy Program (link). The Gault Center was also involved in the development of the MacArthur Foundation’s Towards a Developmentally Appropriate Practice: A Juvenile Court Training Curriculum, which is aimed at all youth justice stakeholders and consists of modules on adolescent development; screening, assessing, and evaluating youth; special education and disability rights; legal questions about youth’s capacities; and communication with youth.

The Gault Center’s database also contains a selection of key scientific studies on child and adolescent development, cognitive and psychosocial capacities, and how these relate to the juvenile justice system.