A court for young adults calls on brain science

 

If brains are developing, how responsible are young adults for crimes?

Public defender Adam Lipson talks with a person appearing before Judge Bruce Chan in Young Adult Court in San Francisco. The court is based on recent research on the adolescent brain.

– On a cloudy afternoon in the Bayview district, Shaquille, 21, was riding in his sister’s 1991 Acura when another car ran a stop sign, narrowly missing them.

Both cars screeched to a halt, and Shaquille and the other driver got out. “I just wanted to talk,” he recalls.

But the talk became an argument, and the argument ended when Shaquille sent the other driver to the pavement with a left hook. Later that day, he was arrested and charged with felony assault.

He already had a misdemeanor assault conviction — for a fight in a laundromat when he was 19. This time he might land in prison.

Instead, Shaquille — who spoke on condition that his full name not be used — wound up in San Francisco’s Young Adult Court, which offered him an alternative.

For about a year, he would go to the court weekly to check in with Judge Bruce E. Chan. Court administrators would coordinate employment, housing and education support for him. He would attend weekly therapy sessions and life-skills classes.

n return, he would avoid trial and, on successful completion of the program, the felony charge would be reduced to a misdemeanor.

“These are transitional-age youth,” said Carole McKindley-Alvarez, who oversees case management for the court. “They’re supposed to make some kind of screwed-up choices. We all did. That’s how you learn.”

Surprisingly, this alternative legal philosophy springs not from concerns about overcrowded prisons or overburdened courts, but from neuroscience.

Researchers have long known that the adolescent brain is continually rewiring itself, making new connections and pruning unnecessary neurons as it matures. Only recently has it become clear that the process stretches well into early adulthood.

Buried in that research is an uncomfortable legal question: If their brains have not fully matured, how responsible are adults ages 18-24 for their crimes?

Should they be treated more like adolescents, handled in the comparatively lenient juvenile system, or more like hardened 35-year-olds? Should young adults be held fully responsible for certain crimes but not others?

 After attending a lecture at Harvard on brain development, George Gascón, the San Francisco district attorney, decided to tackle these questions head on. In 2015, he and Wendy Still, then the city’s probation chief, established Young Adult Court, a hybrid of the adult and juvenile justice systems tailored to the biology and circumstances of offenders 18 to 24.

Gascón and his colleagues argue that neurological immaturity may contribute to criminal behavior. Adult sentences constitute cruel and unusual punishment, they say, and undermine the possibility of rehabilitation.

Trained by a clinical psychologist in recent neuroscience, members of the court’s staff are trying to apply the scientific findings to prevent lifelong entanglement with the criminal justice system.

“It’s an opportunity demographic, is what it is,” Chan said. “This is a really malleable group of people with tremendous capacity to change.”

The developing brain

For most of the past century, scientists assumed brains were fully developed by age 18. Then, in 1999, Dr. Jay N. Giedd of the National Institute of Mental Health published a study in Nature Neuroscience that challenged this view.

The study was intended to explore structural changes during the transition from childhood to adolescence, but Giedd found that neural connections continued to be refined well past age 18.

Laurence Steinberg, a psychologist at Temple University, set out to determine when exactly an adolescent becomes an adult.

His team reported that people performed as well as older adults on cognitive tasks — such as recalling 13-digit numbers forward and backward — by age 16.

Yet psychosocial maturity — measured by impulsivity, risk perception, thrill-seeking, resistance to peer influence — did not begin until age 18, gathering momentum through the early 20s.

“It appeared that these two traits might develop on different timelines,” Steinberg said.

Link Original: http://www.startribune.com/a-court-for-young-adults-calls-on-brain-science/420042683/?src=Apple+News

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