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The Dark Side of “Brain Science”: Manufacturing Teenage Crime

“Teen brain” stereotypes are proving increasingly dangerous. The last thing we need in criminal justice reform are more punishing, age-based laws at time when young people are showing dramatically improved behaviors on their own. Yet, criminal justice interests and policy makers are misusing “brain science” to characterize young adults as naturally irresponsible and deserving of more restrictive punishments “for their own good.”

“The parts of the brain most responsible for decision making, impulse control, and peer susceptibility and conformity continue to develop until about age 25,” declares Richard Bonnie, rationalizing the National Academy of Sciences’ proposals to raise the legal smoking age to 21, or even 25. Based on such claims, local and state legislatures, including California’s, are rushing to create another new class of “status crime” penalizing young people for behaviors that would be perfectly legal if they were older.

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Why suddenly fine 18-20 year-olds $600 to $5,000 for sharing a cigarette with a peer, and effectively ban 1.8 million young adults from jobs in many venues that sell tobacco? Surveys in California Tobacco Facts and Figures 2015 show teenagers and young adults already boast the largest smoking declines of any age group (down a staggering 50 percent since 2000, to record lows) without legal bans.

The heavy fines and license forfeitures for “underage” provisions, which already disincentivize employers from hiring those under 21 to work in the thousands of venues handling alcohol, would now apply to many more handling tobacco. While politicians express dismay at high unemployment rates among young people, they ignore the role of the laws they pass in contributing to high youth unemployment, which is definitely linked to crime and other ills. Further, little evidence shows “status laws,” such as age restrictions for drinking, smoking, or possessing firearms, reduce problems among young people.

The “status crime” impetus is founded in a provably wrong, adult-flattering assertion: that young people are “not like us” (i.e. wise, risk-averse older folks) and must be constrained by laws and policies from exercising brain-impaired, bad judgment. In fact, key measures overwhelmingly show teenagers act remarkably like the adults around them.

Parents who smoke, drink, use drugs, drive badly, and commit crimes are many times more likely to have teenagers who do likewise. Where adults have high rates of certain behaviors, so do youths. For most behaviors, poverty level, not age, is the major determinant of both youthful and grownup risks. These are the areas policy critically needs to address.

NHS Anti-Smoking | David Wulff

Despite their advocates’ rhetorical promises, “status” restrictions typically have no effect and may even sabotage previously healthy trends. Consider four major examples: California’s teen-driving law, the nationally mandated smoking age of 18, the legal drinking age of 21, and juvenile curfews.

Teen driving laws

In 1998, California imposed a cumbersome “graduated licensing” regime restricting youths under 18 from driving alone, with peers, or at night. Experts promised huge reductions in teen traffic deaths. The real result? Traffic fatalities among Californians age 16-19, which had plunged from 708 in 1987 to 373 in 1997, reversed and rose sharply after 1998 to 490 by 2002, with bad effects continuing even 10 years later. Similar results occurred in other states that implemented restrictive driving laws.

National smoking age

National surveys show that nearly 30 percent of high school seniors smoked in the late 1970s, falling to 17 percent in 1992. Then, in 1992, Congress mandated a “smoking age” of 18, and states rushed to comply. The result: smoking rates immediately reversed and rose among both middle and high school youths, reaching 23 percent among seniors by 1999. A major medical study found vigorous enforcement of the smoking age in several cities was associated with higher rates of tobacco use by teenagers.

National drinking age

While raising the drinking age from 18 to 21 in the 1980s was initially associated with fewer traffic fatalities among 18-20 year-olds, later studies associated it with even higher traffic death rates among 21-24 year-olds. To the extent raised drinking ages reduce drinking among teens, they increase risks to young adults by preventing the acquisition of “drinking experience,” these studies found. They also may contribute to youthful unemployment, as noted.

Juvenile curfews

Despite the fact that youth crime and violence had been falling sharply for years, cities started strongly enforcing youth curfews in the late 1990s, peaking at more than 24,000 arrests (along with 16,000 other status offense arrests) in 1999. Our studies of dozens of California cities showed those enforcing curfews had worse trends in youth crime than cities without curfews. Other studies also found curfews do nothing to deter crime. Although shortsighted politicians continue to promote curfews here and there, enthusiasm is now waning. In 2014, curfew arrests fell to just 3,200; still, four in five were of youth of color.

These realities, and the failures of status policies and punishments are obscured by the popular “teenage brain” stampede that simultaneously infantilizes and criminalizes young people. Policy makers should be investigating what is causing positive youth trends, not inventing new penalties for currently legal behavior. It’s time to roll back status laws that have brought more harm and futility, not  add more.


Keywords: age laws, brain science, Juvenile justice, Mike Males, smoking law, status offense, teen, teenage brain, young adult, youth, youth trends

Posted in Blog, Political Landscape

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