Abstracted from: Kristin Henning, Criminalizing Normal Adolescent Behavior in Communities of Color: The Role of Prosecutors in Juvenile Justice Reform, 98 Cornell Law Review 383 (January, 2013) (439 Footnot
Over the last quarter century, psychological research has shown that much of youth crime and delinquency is the product of normal adolescent development. Compared to adults, adolescents often make impetuous and ill-considered decisions, are susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, and have a limited capacity to identify and weigh the short- and long-term consequences of their choices. As most youth mature, however, they age out of delinquent behavior and rarely persist in a life of crime. Because children and adolescents are more malleable and amenable to rehabilitation than adults, the Supreme Court has recognized youth as a mitigating factor in the disposition of even the most serious criminal behavior by adolescents. Most notably, in Roper v. Simmons in 2005, Graham v. Florida in 2010, and Miller v. Alabama in 2012, the Supreme Court relied upon developmental research to conclude, respectively, that the death penalty is categorically inappropriate for youth under the age of eighteen, the sentence of life without the possibility of parole is too severe for youth convicted in nonhomicide cases, and a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole in homicide cases is impermissible because it denies youth the opportunity to present mitigating evidence concerning their development.
Ironically, the developmental research seems to have had little effect in reversing the pervasive overreliance on law enforcement officials and juvenile courts when responding to typical adolescent behaviors, particularly among youth of color. Whereas school officials were once willing to address normal adolescent misconduct through counseling and other in-school interventions, school officials now routinely rely on police officers to manage student discipline. A typical schoolyard fight is labeled as a felony assault, and students who play “catch” with a teacher’s hat are charged with robbery. While teachers, law enforcement officers, and ultimately prosecutors are rightly concerned about public safety, youth accountability, and compensating victims for their harms, these concerns are too often addressed with law enforcement strategies that ignore scientifically supported conclusions about adolescent offending and diminished culpability. These strategies also disregard more effective, community-based alternatives to prosecution that are more likely to ensure adolescents’ successful transition to adulthood.
There is little dispute that racial disparities pervade the contemporary American juvenile justice system. Although black youth comprised only 16% of all youth in the United States from 2002 to 2004, they accounted for 28% of all juvenile arrests, 37% of detained youth, 34% of youth formally processed by the juvenile court, 35% of youth judicially waived to criminal court, and 58% of youth sent to adult state prison. MORE