Seeing Youth for Who They Are

Scientists will tell you that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for impulse control and similar functions, is one of the slowest areas to grow. It doesn’t reach full maturity until well past the teen years. A parent or high school teacher will tell you the same thing in different words: an otherwise smart kid often makes bafflingly poor decisions and seems to lack even the most basic ability to connect actions to consequences. Congress understood this idea when they set the federal drinking age at 21 in 1984, and rental car companies certainly recognize it, charging a premium for renters under the age of 25. Somehow, everyone except the American justice system seems to understand the idea that people’s decisions in their teen years are not reflective of their adult character.

In New York State, offenders as young as 13 can be treated as adults, and every 16 and 17 year old is prosecuted as an adult no matter the alleged crime — something only one other state still does. The result is to subject vulnerable young people to the harsh realities of the criminal justice system, increasing the likelihood of a lifelong relationship with it. This is not a marginal issue either, as nearly a third of public high schools have a uniformed police officer in them, and these officers often create criminal situations out of incidents that could be handled as simple disciplinary actions.

But even those young people who are tried within the juvenile justice system may not fare much better. New Yorkers as young as seven can be arrested and charged with acts of juvenile delinquency. Additionally, juvenile detention centers today are often barely distinguishable from jails, with little in the way of educational standards, treatment for drug addiction, or behavioral therapy.

All of these punishments are handed down in an overwhelmingly racialized way, as over 70% of 16 and 17 year olds arrested are Black or Latino and of those sentenced to incarceration, 80% are black and Latino.

If there is any place in the justice system that should prioritize rehabilitation over punishment, it is in dealing with young people. Instead, an offense in high school is a common entry point into a state of lifelong limbo in which individuals face steep and persistent barriers to employment, preventing them from ever earning a family-supporting wage or experiencing the psychological benefits of dignified work.

At Manhattan Legal Services, we provide civil legal support to poor New Yorkers from communities of color. The stories our clients bring to our offices so often begin in the late teen years, with a slipup or two. Though our clients have long since paid their debts to society, the mistakes they made before their prefrontal cortexes had matured dog them decades later, in the form of landlords who won’t rent to someone with a criminal background or employers who use a criminal conviction as a reason not to offer a candidate a job, even if it had nothing to do with the position.

It’s time for us as a nation to acknowledge what we know about the prefrontal cortex and to treat kids as kids. It’s time for us to think back to own our childhoods, and to consider what our lives would be like if we were still paying for every stupid thing we did. It’s time to make the justice system an early detection and intervention system that helps teens learn to make good decisions before it’s too late, rather than the first step in a life of isolation and unfulfilled potential.