Child Myths

Straight talk about child development.

Adolescents and Life Without Parole

If adolescents are impulsive criminals, deterrence may not work.

The United States Supreme Court is presently discussing whether it is or is not appropriate to condemn and adolescent who has committed a crime to life imprisonment without parole. A decision in 2005 has already abolished the death penalty for juveniles. In commenting on these matters, the psychologist Laurence Steinberg and the law professor Elizabeth Scott have noted the "consensus among neuroscientists that brain regions and systems responsible for foresight, self-regulation, risk assessment and responsiveness to social influences continuing to mature into young adulthood" ("The young and the reckless", New York Times, Nov. 13, 2009, p. A21). Urging the justices to prohibit the life sentence without parole for juvenile offenders, Steinberg and Scott reject the idea that such a sentence could be decided on a case-by-case basis.

How can we analyze this issue? What factors, other than laws and legal precedents, should be considered, as the justices and the rest of us wrestle with this difficult problem? Is it possible to use developmental evidence about adolescents to help us decide what to do?

An important point to consider is our intention in punishing either juvenile or adult offenders. It's only with respect to the intended outcome that we can consider the significance of mental immarurity. Is the point to "teach" the person "right from wrong" and to prevent this specific individual from repeating a heinous offense? Is the point to deter observers-- other potential criminals-- from doing crimes that they have not yet done? Is the point to isolate a criminal from society, keeping the rest of us safe from the harm he or she might potentially do us? Is the point simply to show that the laws of the land apply to all? Is the point to encourage the re-election of prosecutors and other figures, or to consolidate their power base? Is the point to give support or criticism to other political figures? Is the point to restore some sort of cosmic balance, redressing harm done by harming the malefactor in turn through legally-prescribed punishment?

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If the last four items are the real point of life imprisonment without parole, it really does not matter whether the criminal is a juvenile or an adult, an immature personality or a mature one. The sentence plays the same role for both.

If the point is to deter other potential criminals from similar crimes yet uncommitted, it is remotely possible that more severe sentences of any kind-- including capital punishment-- might be more effective than less severe ones. To what extent deterrence might be effective remains quite unclear. Adults might be deterred by the possible outcome of their acts. If adolescents assess risks poorly, self-regulate ineffectively, and exercise little foresight (and few would argue with this characterization), deterrence would hardly be expected to have much of an effect on them. Does a 13-year-old about to rape an elderly woman, as in one of the cases now before the court, hesitate and think, "Oh, no. I'd better not do this. I can only look forward to life imprisonment without parole, like the sentence my cousin received, and then so much for the career I had planned, marriage and children to be proud of, and a respected place in the community"? On the contrary, thought and planning probably play virtually no role in the processes that either culminate in rape or somehow stop the event, so deterrence is unlikely. There is little objective evidence about this, as adolescent criminals may have little ability to reflect on their actions or to recount them to other people. But we can speculate that if anyone is to be deterred by another person's life sentence without parole, it would be an adult, not an adolescent.

What if the point is to isolate a dangerous individual and to keep the rest of us safe from that person's depredations? If that's the intention, life without parole obviously does a better job of maintaining public safety than can be provided if parole is an option. There is presently no way to discriminate accurately between the individual who committed a crime because of immaturity, and another person who will have the same motivations in later life as in earlier life. We should also consider the possibility that very young offenders are almost guaranteed continued criminality if incarcerated during the period of life when people are normally socialized into adult behavior. It's possible that an adolescent who received good guidance and care following a criminal act might be able to achieve normal adulthood, through opportunities to be socialized into expectable behavior relative to others (and especially to the opposite sex). But we have a very small number of stories about young criminals who received some attention and care while incarcerated and who in fact did reform and regret their criminal acts; one such story involves the English child murderess, Mary Bell, who had strangled two small children when she was 11, but whose reflections and the help of prison staff led her to remorse in adulthood (told by G. Sereny in "Cries Unheard", Metropolitan/Holt, 1999).

How about "teaching right from wrong"? Although this is often claimed to be the goal of punishment through imprisonment, obviously it makes little difference what a prisoner learns, if he or she is never to be released back into the community. Adolescent or adult, a prisoner without parole will never be able to demonstrate whether real moral learning has occurred.

While it's of general importance to consider the special characteristics of adolescents and their roles in society, we may not be able to use those characteristics to help decide sentencing guidelines, until we have figured out the real intentions with which we sentence for serious crimes.


Jean Mercer is a developmental psychologist with a special interest in parent-infant relationships.


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