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The Developing Brain’s Role in Criminal Activity

What makes a person turn to crime? The question is an age-old quandary. Why do some take a self-destructive path and end up on the wrong side of the law?

Research points to brain development that goes on beyond legal adulthood. According to BJ Case, professor of neuroscience and behavior, the brain and its networks continue to develop, even well into an individual's twenties, particularly those involving self-regulation and self-control.

Cognitive factors

In emotionally-charged settings, similarities exist between those 18 to 21 and those still in their teenage years. Cognitive abilities and brain activity patterns also match with minimal deviations. However, higher order, decision-making, and functioning remain underdeveloped.

Many states have considered brain science and prohibited life sentences without parole for those under 21. In 2005, the Supreme Court deemed the mental and emotional development of adolescents who committed severe crimes, ruling it unconstitutional to impose death penalty sentences for those under 18.

Some fear that lenience for criminal suspects under 18 may encourage continuing bad behavior. Others believe recognizing the line between a child and an adult with a fully developed brain is essential in handling criminal cases.

Maturity does not have a specific age. Eighteen-year-olds can vote. Those who reach 21 can purchase alcohol and tobacco. Sixteen-year-olds can prepare for legally operating a motor vehicle. History reveals that 21 was the age of maturity for a majority of United States history. When World War Two started, that number lowered to 18.

Maturity or lack thereof is only one piece of the puzzle regarding capability for criminal activity. A minor criminal infraction can have serious consequences. A promising young life is suddenly turned upside down, requiring the help of a skilled and experienced criminal defense attorney.