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“Teen Brain” Non-Science Debunked

The dubious notion of youth crime being driven by “adolescent risk taking” fomented in the undeveloped teenage brain has been strongly challenged by new scientific findings discrediting popular misuse of “functional Magnetic Resonance Imagings” (fMRIs). Outmoded claims of a biological basis for youth crime are also refuted by statistics showing modern young people are less crime prone than middle-aged adults.

Even before subjective misinterpretations of fMRIs were debunked, statistical realities were demolishing claims that teenagers are naturally crime-prone. Over the last 35 years (1980-2015), as California’s population age 10-17 leaped by one million and became 70 percent nonwhite — trends experts warned would bring vastly more crime by teenage “superpredators” – annual arrests in that age group fell from 286,000 to 63,000. Annual juvenile murder arrests fell from 445 to 88; juvenile violent crimes from 20,000 to 7,000; and property and drug offenses from 132,000 to 30,000. It’s a whole different world today on juvenile crime – but major interests stubbornly persist in refusing to recognize it.

Likewise, those colorful fMRI scans of youth brains highlight many conference PowerPoints deriding allegedly immature, crime-prone, adolescent behavior are now being severely questioned by a new, large-scale review by Sweden’s Linkoping University and the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom. That review reconfirms what responsible neuroscientists have been warning for years: fMRIs cannot be reliably interpreted or replicated to establish scientific conclusions. Some 40,000 studies based on fMRIs could now be invalidated. “This is huge,” Science Alert headlined.

This invalidation will have an enormous impact on “teen brain” non-science promulgated in the juvenile justice field. For years, adults have enjoyed demeaning adolescents and young adults as brainlessly crime-driven and “stupid” to elevate popular and profitable notions of “adolescent risk taking” as the originator of crime. The resurrection of long-debunked 19th century biodeterminist notions parallels several modern trends: the emerging nonwhite majority among youth and renewed racialized fears; the political imperative to divert attention from skyrocketing middle-aged drug abuse, violence, gun killings and other risks; and the juvenile justice system’s fiscal need for an expanded definition of “youth” to avoid severe budget cuts, layoffs, and facility closures caused by the drastic decline in youth crime.

Table 1. California statewide arrests per 100,000 population by age, 2015 vs. 1978

Sources: California DOJ, Open Justice Portal (2016); Criminal Justice Statistics Center (2016): Department of Finance (2016). Note: 1978 is the first year data was available and 2015 shows the most recent available data.

 

Nationally, youth arrests also plunged from 2.8 million in 1995 to around 800,000 today, including declining rates of violent crime (down 70 percent), property and drug offenses (down 70 percent), murder arrests (down 80 percent), and gun killings (down two-thirds). Arrests of children under 12, which reliably predict future system needs, have fallen even faster.Today, California’s arrest rate for 15-17 year-olds – when obsolete adolescent risk theory dictates youth are most “crime prone” – resembles that of 50-year-olds (Table 1). For age 18-19, crime rates equal those of adults in their thirties. The peak year for arrest in California is now 27. Theories of innately criminal youth have gained popularity just as real-world youthful crime fell below adult levels.

Today’s big mystery is not what is wrong with young people, but why crime and gun violence levels are so high among the middle-aged, an age group with much lower poverty levels than young people.

Poverty, not brain biology, remains the real risk factor for youth arrest. One in five California teenagers and young adults live in families with below-poverty incomes, compared to just 10 percent of those in middle age. Five out of six gun murders among young people victimize those in populations with poverty levels of 20 percent or higher, while middle-class and affluent youths are as safe as Canada’s. How do “teen brain” and “adolescent risk” defenders explain the disconnect between their “brain science” and statistical realities? They don’t. Crucial trends are being systematically ignored because they don’t fit dominant ideologies and interest groups’ needs.

Instead, a false scientific veneer to century-old biodeterminist prejudice is being deployed to justify spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build and operate new "therapeutic" prisons, called the California Leadership Academy, for young adult clients. In recent years, as 80 percent fewer youth entered the system, California closed eight of its 11 state youth correctional facilities and has approximately 6,000 empty beds in local juvenile halls.

There are good reasons to handle more justice-involved individuals of all ages in a rehabilitation-oriented system. Research indicates that overcrowded adult prisons demonstrably make crime worse, and juvenile prisons have a long history of inflicting serious abuses, making rehabilitative, community-based alternatives imperative. But decisions on trial and sentencing should be based on lawful criteria such as prior record and rehabilitation potential, not arbitrary demographic factors like age, race, and gender.

California has wasted incredible time, resources, and humanity on a repeating series of racist, ageist, xenophobic, and other biology-driven bigotries enabling authorities to flatter powerful constituencies while demonizing powerless ones as innately dangerous. Youth of 2017 deserve 2017 ideas — ideas that may work for adults as well.

Keywords: brain science, California Leadership Academy, fMRI, Mike Males, neurology, teenage brain, young adult prisons, youth arrests, youth crime, youth crime trends

Posted in Blog, Sentencing

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