I have a deep respect for Dr. Lawrence Steinberg. Having spent long hours through college reading his textbook "Adolescence," I never found him missing an opportunity to debunk the common myths associated with adolescence in current day society. He seemed very vocal against how they are all too often painted into a box by experts, media, and the criminal justice system alike.
You've heard a hundred times over how adolescents are "troublemakers" and "emotional," and how every waking moment with them is nothing but "storm and stress." Well, Steinberg doesn't want to settle on these misleading characterizations of adolescents in order to sell books to parents like so many experts and those in the media do. Instead, his whole thing is that as an age group there isn't anything abnormal about them, they're just different from adults. This is part of an lengthier interview from the New York Times:
Q. You hear parents sometimes say, "I'm living with an insane person! My child is a teenager." Are they being hyperbolic?
A. I’m not one of those people who labels adolescence as some sort of mental illness. Teenagers are not crazy. They’re different.
When it comes to crime, they are less responsible for their behavior than adults. And typically, in the law, we don’t punish people as much who are less responsible. We know from our lab that adolescents are more impulsive, thrill-seeking, drawn to the rewards of a risky decision than adults. They tend to not focus very much on costs. They are more easily coerced to do things they know are wrong. These factors, under the law, make people less responsible for criminal acts. The issue is: as a class, should we treat adolescents differently?
Q. Is the criminal justice system beginning to take these differences into account during sentencing?
A. It’s been coming up in cases. I went to Washington in November to watch the oral arguments in two related cases before the Supreme Court that ask: should someone who committed a crime as a teen be subjected to life imprisonment without a chance for parole, ever?
With these cases, and another in 2005 where the high court threw out the death penalty for adolescents, I was scientific consultant to the American Psychological Association on its amicus brief. What we said in the death penalty case — and now — was that we have considerable evidence showing that adolescents are different from adults in ways that mitigate their criminal responsibility. But since 2005, there’s been a lot of new scientific evidence supporting this position.
Q. What is the new evidence?
A. In the last five years, as neuroscience has moved forward with functional magnetic resonance imaging and with research on animals, there have been dozens of new studies of adolescent brain development. These show that the brain systems providing for impulse control are still maturing during adolescence. Neuroscientists have shown that the part of the brain that improves most during adolescence is the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in complicated decision-making, thinking ahead, planning, comparing risks and rewards. And the neuroscientific research is showing that over the course of adolescence and into the 20s, there is this continued maturation of this part of the brain. So now, we have brain evidence that supports behavioral studies.
Moreover, we’re seeing that behavior can change once the brain more fully matures. Take thrill-seeking, for instance. What happens is that when people move out of adolescence, they become less interested in it. For example, I can’t stand riding on a roller-coaster now. I liked it as a teenager. I can’t stand driving fast now. I liked driving fast when I was a teenager. What has changed? I’m not as driven today by this thrill-seeking sensation. And in our studies, we’ve shown that there is a kind of normative decline in sensation-seeking after middle adolescence. A lot of adolescent crime is driven by thrill-seeking.
Q. How does this new information lead to concluding that courts shouldn't sentence some adolescents to life in prison without parole?
A. Given the fact that we know that there will be a developmental change in most people, the science says that we should give them a chance to mature out of it. No one is saying that kids who commit horrific crimes shouldn’t be punished. But most in the scientific community think that we know that since this person is likely to change, why not revisit this when he’s an adult and see what he’s like?
Read the rest at the New York Times site here.