I have often wondered about the seemingly arbitrary distinction between “under 18” and “18.” Surely it is a legal fiction that, within the flick of a day, an adolescent transforms instantaneously into an adult. If under 18, the defendant is determined “less blameworthy,” as the Supreme Court has concluded. But if he is 18, he is an adult deserving of little mercy.
Obviously, lines need to be drawn somewhere. But is there no way to account for the gray area between 18 and 21, years in which he is still developing?
Scientific research finally has turned towards this question. In the past, research devoted to youth under 18, coupled with the tireless work of youth advocates, resulted in real social change. In 2005, the Supreme Court decision Roper v. Simmons banned the death penalty for defendants under 18 at the time of their crime. And over the course of the past six years, the Supreme Court, has steadily limited, and finally banned, life without parole (LWOP) for youth under 18 at the time of their crime.
But until now, scarcely any research has been done on the brain development of young adults, ages 18 to 21. A recent Vanderbilt study, the result of an intensely interdisciplinary collaboration among law professors, neuroscientists, doctors, and psychologists, shows “distinct changes in the brains of young adults, ages 18 to 21, suggesting that they too may be immature in ways that are relevant to justice policy.” They write that “young adulthood is a distinct developmental period, and that young adults are different both from adolescents and from somewhat older adults in ways that are potentially relevant to justice policy.”
Many of their findings seem like common sense. But scientific research on this topic represents a turn to treating this age group as worthy of advocacy. Patrick was 18 when he was arrested. Had he been 17, the punishment of his crime would have been different. His record could be expunged; he would not have a felony; and he might have a better shot at making a living. He may have been placed in juvenile rehabilitation rather than in state prison. And just as important, he might view himself differently. If the law offers a reason for mercy, the defendant might be more willing to offer it to himself.
For further reading on young adulthood and criminal justice, see this helpful bibliography that I lifted from the study.