Vol. 80, No. 6, June 2007
Jeff is an A student, a senior in high school, with plans to become a doctor some day. He plays sports, stays out of trouble, and generally gets along well with everyone. One day Jeff is at the mall with his girlfriend, and she points out a $30 pair of earrings she wants. He hints that he might get them for her birthday, but she really wants them right away. Jeff does not have $30 on him. He thinks he will take the earrings and no one will know, and that then he will leave $30 on the front desk when he saves up the money. He slips the earrings into his pocket. When he walks out, the store security alarm goes off. Before he knows it, Jeff is at the local jail waiting for a bail hearing. He explains that he was planning to pay the money back, but it is too late. He spends two nights in jail until a judge decides he can go home.
Jeff finds out the hard way that 17-year-olds are all tried as adults in Wisconsin, no matter how minor the crime they commit. As he sits in jail, he thinks of all the long nights he has spent studying to get into a good college and wonders what his prospects are now. He can't explain what he was thinking when he stole the earrings, other than that he didn't think he would get caught and he thought he could pay back the store without it missing the jewelry.
Juveniles Have Undeveloped Brains
Why would Jeff, such a smart kid, do such a stupid thing? As the American Medical Association wrote recently in a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court:1
"The adolescent's mind works differently from ours. Parents know it. This court has said it. Legislatures have presumed it for decades or more. And now, new scientific evidence sheds light on the differences."
Recent research in brain development shows that the areas of the brain associated with risk assessment, impulse control, long-term planning, and decision making are the last areas to develop in the adolescent brain. While Jeff, like most 17-year-olds, has reached his full intellectual capacity, the parts of his brain that govern psycho-social development will not be fully developed until he is in his early to mid-20s.