Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Science, Adolescence, and Legal Culpability

It is important to begin with the disclaimer that it is not here my intention to discuss moral culpability, particularly given that the focus will be on the possibility of a diminished culpability. I do not in any sense advocate acceptance of diminished moral culpability which would be inconsistent with a belief that morals operate in absolute categories. Moreover, with specific regard to adolescence, I have more or less entirely abandoned the self-serving and unbiblical doctrine of an age of accountability which had been taught me in my youth. As I get older (and hopefully wiser), I increasingly see the value in the historic Christian recognition of sinful impulses even in infancy. This is not, however, the place to argue either the absoluteness of morality or the moral culpability of children. Instead, I want to look at the possibility of a diminished legal culpability.

On this point, the recent Chardon High School shooting has caught my attention and specifically the recent indications that T. J. Lane will be tried as an adult. The legitimacy of trying minors as adults is, admittedly, difficult to navigate. The arbitrary nature with which American children are unceremoniously ushered into adulthood functions both to retard legitimate maturation in those still technically minors (consider the contentious age of consent laws) and to foist tremendous responsibility onto an unprepared, uninformed section of the populace (consider the rapidity with which teenagers are allowed to legally accrue massive student loan debt). There seems to be legitimate cultural argument both for treating the crimes of minors as intrinsically different and for occasionally ignoring that distinction when appropriate. The question is, and ought to be, how to distinguish between times when it is appropriate to recognize the unique legal status of minors and when it is necessary to ignore it. The state of Colorado offers three primary criteria for consideration:

  • The age of the offender.
  • The offender's previously criminal record.
  • The severity of the crime.

At first glance, this seems like a relatively reasonable, objective rubric for determining the level of legal culpability for minors. Yet I wonder if perhaps the science which underlies our distinct treatment of minors might not reveal that one of these categories is
substantially weaker than the others. It is important to realize that the argument for a diminished legal capacity is not merely cultural but neurological. Studies on teenagers having shown that "impulse control, planning and decisionmaking are largely frontal cortex functions that are still maturing during adolescence...In sum, a large and compelling body of scientific research on the neurological development of teens confirms a long-held, common sense view: teenagers are not the same as adults in a variety of key areas such as the ability to make sound judgments when confronted by complex situations, the capacity to control impulses, and the ability to plan effectively. Such limitations reflect, in part, the fact that key areas of the adolescent brain, especially the prefrontal cortex that controls many higher order skills, are not fully mature until the third decade of life. Teens are full of promise, often energetic and caring, capable of making many contributions to their communities, and able to make remarkable spurts in intellectual development and learning. But neurologically, they are not adults."

With this in mind, it is easy to see why the age of the offender is a legitimate concern for determining legal culpability. After all, physical maturation is directly correlated to the ability of the brain to delay gratification. In lacking a fully functional ability to control impulses, positive and negative, adolescents cannot be held responsible for their actions at an equal level with adults who presumably have the ability to resist criminal urges. Certainly the case can be made that age is an inadequate indicator of physical and psychological development (hence the flaw in age of consent laws), but in the absence of a pragmatic alternative it makes sense to employ age as an important category. There is even logic to including the offender's previous criminal record, insofar as previous encounters with the judicial system ought to have acted as a catalyst for forming connections between criminal behavior and its consequences. Whatever may be said about the development of the frontal cortex in adolescents, even a dog can learn not to chew on your shoes after having been smacked with a rolled up newspaper a requisite number of times.

The connection between the severity of the crime and legal culpability seems less substantial. The scientific basis for trying minors as minors rests on what is tantamount to a mental defect on the part of teenagers. The adolescent mind lacks the necessary maturity--in an anatomical not a cultural sense--to entirely grasp the severity and repercussions of its actions in the moment. If not completely impotent, adolescents are at least severely disabled as they attempt to govern their baser impulses, maps out the consequences of their actions, and sympathize with a reality beyond their limited scope of contact and power. In other words, it is the very fact that a fourteen year old can shoot someone almost as easily as he or she could pat someone on the back which requires minors to be treated differently by the legal system. Given this psycho-physiological handicap, how can we include the severity of the crime in the calculation? It is the inability to conceive adequately of severity that constitutes the essence of the adolescent problem.

Which brings us full circle back to T. J. Lane. Admittedly, at seventeen, he is approaching the legal threshold for adulthood, and his ability to grasp the consequences of his actions in the moment may have been more developed than not. Certainly there is some question as to his background which may come to light as the judge debates whether or not to release his county social services record. Still, I cannot help but wonder if the push to have Lane tried as an adult has less to do with a reasoned philosophy of legal culpability and more to do with the blood lust of the community on behalf of the victims. After all, it is hardly overly cynical to suggest that Lane's crime warrants national attention and judicial rigor not because three people died but because they died in a white, suburban high school. (Based on CDC numbers, an average of eighty-four nameless, faceless people die every day in America from violence involving guns--some legal, most not.) Aside from race and affluence, what makes these deaths so heinous is that they were children, in a state of presumed innocence, whose lives did not deserve to be cut short when they had so much growing and developing left to do. I submit, that T. J. Lane, no less a child than his victims, deserves the same consideration.

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