Could Teenage Brains Cause Teenage Crime?

Our Palm Beach and Broward County criminal defense lawyers know that whenever a crowd of seemingly rowdy young people approaches, trouble is probably not far away — at least, that’s what many people think. But why do we instinctly associate teenagers with trouble, angst and (often times) criminal behavior?
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The fact is that individuals in their early twenties do seem to misbehave at higher rathes than do others in society. But why? Do teenagers just love to drive fast, do drugs and steal things? Research is beginning to shed some light on this issue, and the results could one day cause a major shift in the strategies of criminal defense lawyers representing juveniles.

Medical studies now reveal that the part of the brain responsible for reasoning matures after the parts of the brain that trigger emotions and sensations of reward have developed. In this sense, outlandish behavior by teenagers is, at least in part, explainable by the way the human brain naturally develops.

Researchers behind various trials and brain imaging techniques used at such institutions as Cornell and Stanford have concluded that the amygdala (the part of the brain that is responsible for responding to fear) develops before the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain charged with reasoning and decision-making).

This means that normal fear which plagues teenagers in social situations, for example, is not calibrated by the reasoning mechanisms that adults take for granted. This is explains why teenagers are quicker to seemingly overreact to a situation; unlike those of adults, teenagers’ brains will have the propensity to react to fear far earlier than they will have the capacity to regulate that fear.

So, let’s say that a Palm Beach or Broward County teenager finds himself or herself in a situation in which they (perhaps irrationally) feel threatened by another individual. As a result, they lash out and strike the other individual. This is an example of the teen acting on emotion (fueled by the amygdala); the teen might very well have not been able to restrain himself or herself because of the lack of developed prefrontal cortex, which might have let the teen calm down and properly evaluate the consequences of their actions. Clearly, the developmental process of the brain plays a role in how teenagers act and react to fear.

Just like the amygdala, the reward center of the brain, part of the limbic system, also matures earlier than the prefrontal cortex. As our Palm Beach and Broward County criminal defense lawyers know, the reward center of the brain releases pleasurable feelings; many teens get these pleasurable feelings from dangerous activities such as driving exceedingly fast and/or doing drugs, both of which are illegal.

Because teens (and other young people) are able to “please” their brains’ reward centers earlier than they are able to adequately contemplate the consequences of their actions, teens are more likely than others to engage in what appears to be reckless behavior — they are lacking the brain function necessary for reasoning, planning, and making proper decisions.

So, what is the implication of all of this on the field of juvenile criminal defense law? First, let’s consider the fact that when someone accused of a crime is determined to have been mentally incapacitated or disabled at the time of the commission of the crime, said individual is treated differently because of the mental condition. (For example, a mentally “insane” person can plead not guilty by reason of insanity, evidence that the criminal justice system takes into account one’s consciousness of right and wrong when the crime was committed.)

If a teenager is charged with a crime related to their reaction to emotion or their intention to “please” the reward center of the brain, it’s critical that the court consider the findings of the recent research described above. The argument that the teenager could have made a more mature decision and not committed the crime in question might actually be false, given the differences in times of development across different areas of the brain. Our criminal defense lawyers know that innovative approaches to criminal defense strategy, such as the one described herein, are important in providing the best possible legal representation.

If you have been arrested for or charged with a crime in Palm Beach, Broward or Miami-Dade County, contact our criminal defense lawyers at the Law Offices of Leifert & Leifert for a free consultation. You can reach us by calling 1-888-5-DEFEND (1-888-533-3363).

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