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Fifteen-year-olds are about as likely to commit murder as 45-year-olds, even though middle-agers are only about half as likely to live in poverty (which powerfully contributes to murder and arrest risk) and should have much lower rates than teenagers. 

More rigorous scientific approaches incorporating the fact that teenagers are much more likely to live in poverty than older adults, show that it is not young age, but differences in socioeconomic status and the contribution of poverty, trauma, and their effect on brain development (and other key variables, including lowered IQ) which boost arrest potential and account for higher crime rates among poorer youth.

publik16 | flickr creative commons

Still, a tiny number of youths, like their elders, do commit horrific acts. The charges against a Santa Cruz 15-year-old accused of brutally raping and murdering an 8‑year-old girl in late July have set off another round of nonsense about teenagers from all political quarters.

Only days after the killing, Harriet Salarno of Crime Victims United of California, publicly pronounced the boy guilty. He had planned it, he knew her. It wasn’t just in the heat of passion.” Conversely, many advocates, as in this case, argue that no youth could fully understand the consequences of murdering someone. Juveniles function very much like the mentally retarded,” declared Steven Drizin,of the Children and Family Justice Center in a juvenile homicide case. The biggest similarity is their cognitive deficit. [Teens] may be highly functioning, but that doesn’t make them capable of making good decisions.”

Both victims’ and juvenile justice advocates should stop making inflammatory claims. As Sue Burrell of San Francisco’s Youth Law Center pointed out, we don’t know enough about this case to be making judgments. Worse, if we really believed all 15-year-olds are potentially mindless child-murderers as Drizin and others suggest, we’d have to chain all of them up.

Drizin’s statement fails simple empiricism. While it is possible that a particular 15-year-old (or 45-year-old) who committed murder does not comprehend his actions, that leaves approximately 517,000 15-year-olds in California who don’t commit murder. If 15-year-olds were so retarded” in cognitive capacity as to not comprehend the brutality and consequences of murdering someone, the state would be littered with the dead bodies of parents, siblings, and vice principals.

Nadir Burney | flickr creative commons

Unfortunately, most authorities and commentators seem mired in a past when teenagers did have disproportionately high rates of crime and other risks, which isn’t the case today. The latest criminology fad is the discovery” of terrible flaws in the teenage brain” that enables resurrection of long-debunked prejudices about bio-determined adolescent savagery as a byproduct of their developmental incompetence. If misusing ambiguous brain imagingwas science, advocates would be pronouncing adults doubly incompetent based on the same fMRI scans showing deteriorating memory, learning, and cognition in brains age 30 and older.

But haven’t teen-brain” arguments proven useful in winning decisions restricting juvenile capital punishment and life without parole? Yes, but there are more truthful and compelling arguments for treating youths differently in the justice system, founded in the severe denial of rights to youths to shape their own lives, the conditions under with they live, what adults they must associate with and obey, and how they can defend themselves in court.

While some authorities indulge in derisive comparisons of teenaged thinking to a perfect standard of reasoning, comparisons of real adolescent attitudes, behaviors, cognition, and competence to those of real adults in equivalent circumstances consistently find great similarities. A major MacArthur Foundation-funded study found 16 to 17-year-olds as competent as adults to stand trial based on key criteria, and 14 – 15 year-olds only slightly less competent. Low IQ, found disproportionately in justice-involved individuals, was a much better predictor of competence than age.

Wikimedia creative commons

But the damage caused by fanning prejudices that, in effect, adolescent murderers should be treated differently because all teenagers are latent killers needs to be recognized. The culmination of these worst-of-both-worlds — the denial of rights and the perception of teenaged incompetency — is that youth are subjected to a harsher justice system, suffering a myriad of restrictions and serving longer sentences than adults for the same offenses.

Tabulation of 24 years of time-served data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) for prisoners released from 1987 through 2010 found that for all the claims of leniency, youths sentenced for homicide by juvenile courts actually served the longest behind bars (an average of 72 months). In contrast, adults sentenced for homicide served an average of 62 months, while youths sentenced for homicide by adult criminal courts served the shortest terms (54 months). Are youths really better off being treated as incompetent children?

Rhetoric disparaging the teenage brain may help keep a very small number of youths who have committed horrendous crimes from serving the most severe sentences, but it comes at the expense of creating a more negative climate for millions of youths who will all be assumed to be incapable of judgment and therefore capable of murder.

We pay judges to make decisions about competence to stand trial based on individualized criteria. We don’t need either prosecutors or advocacy groups presuming to make that decision in advance based on emotional assumptions and blanket prejudices.