Juvenile Justice and Adolescent Brain Development


The juvenile justice system in the United States was established to help in transforming children who engage in criminal acts or unlawful behavior. The system is structured in a way that is meant to help these youngsters understand how to lead a normal life as per the laws of the country. Recent studies have indicated that there is an overrepresentation of African American adolescent males within the juvenile system (Williams, Dorn, Bright, Jonson-Reid, & Nebbitt, 2010). What is even more worrying is the fact that once these adolescents are released or placed under child welfare, they easily find themselves back in these correctional facilities after a short period. A study by Bright and Jonson-Reid (2015) argues that adolescent males who are released from correctional facilities are twice more likely to engage in unlawful activities than those who have never been subject to the juvenile justice system.

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The statistics are worrying because it indicates that the juvenile justice system in the country is acting as an institution that trains youngsters to be hardened criminals. They meet peers who were also involved in criminal activities, and they get to learn how to improve their skills when engaging in criminal activities (Topitzes, Mersky, & Reynolds, 2013). The overrepresentation of African American adolescent males in the juvenile system may be attributed to several factors within American society. Given that the system has not been very effective in addressing juvenile delinquency in the country, it explains why adult correctional facilities have a high number of African American males. Feld (2013) says that the system needs a scientific understanding of the brain development of adolescents. Instead of being quick to send them to a penitentiary, they need to be understood, and the fact that their brain is yet to be fully developed should be taken into consideration. In this paper, the researcher seeks to discuss the need for an improved scientific understanding of the brain development of adolescents by the juvenile justice system.


Juvenile delinquency in the United States and many other countries around the world is a problem that has existed for a considerably long time, and that is why the juvenile justice system was established. In the past, children who committed offenses were subjected to corporal punishment based on the magnitude of their mistakes. However, that has changed in modern society, making it necessary to have a justice system that deals specifically with child offenders. The existence of the system is justified, but its efficiency has been questioned by many scholars. Correctional facilities are meant to dissuade youths from engaging in criminal activities in the future once they are released back to society. However, studies show that individuals are more likely to find themselves back in prison even in their adulthood.

Bright and Jonson-Reid (2015) blamed the limited scientific approach that has always been taken when dealing with these juveniles. It is important to appreciate that sometimes these adolescents engage in crime because of the pressure they face. Some of them do not even understand the magnitude of the offenses they commit because of their underdeveloped brains. The overrepresentation of African American adolescent males in these institutions is a fact that is widely documented in many studies. It is important to understand why there is a tendency to subject these adolescents to this system. Before discussing the prevalence of this problem globally, and how adolescents are often harshly sentenced in adult courts, it is important to look at the overrepresentation of African American adolescent males in the United States’ juvenile system.

The Racial Bias in the American Juvenile Justice System

The United States was once the leading destination for slaves during the era of the slave trade (Jonson-Reid, Drake, & Zhou, 2013). When the founding fathers of this nation took power from the colonial masters, they promised to abolish the practice. The Emancipation Proclamation that was decreed by President Abraham Lincoln was seen by many at that time as a turning point when the country would view African Americans and people of color as human beings with rights and freedom equal to those of Whites (Topitzes et al., 2013). However, although slavery ended, African Americans have never enjoyed the rights and freedoms that Whites have in the USA. Racial discrimination is still a common problem.

During the Civil Rights Movement of 1954-1968, African Americans fought against discrimination that was rampant in the country. African American children could not attend the same schools as the white ones. Hospitals and other social amenities for the people of color were also different from that of Whites. The rulers ensured that laws were put in place to protect the interest of Whites at the expense of the people of color. It is important to appreciate that the country has made considerable progress in eliminating these retrogressive laws that profiled the society of that time. However, new instruments have emerged, which still make it difficult for African Americans to achieve economic and social success in the country.

One of the biggest problems that current society faces is a racial bias against African Americans. The law enforcement agencies are always quick to arrest and prosecute African American adolescent males at the slightest provocation (Cherry, Baltag, & Dillon, 2016). During the Civil Rights Movements, African American youths developed a bad reputation with the police. The difficult relationship between the police and African American youths has never changed. Whether justified or not, the police often feel threatened whenever they have to arrest an African American youngster. The perception that they are violent and always armed makes these officers use excessive force that is not necessary. On the other hand, society has taught African Americans to hate law enforcement agents because they are seen as biased and oppressive in their work (Jonson-Reid et al., 2013). It is common, therefore, to find cases where an innocent youngster, suspected of committing a certain crime, is sent to prison because of assaulting an officer who tried to arrest him using excessive force. The problem is common in ghettos where crime incidences are high. Little has been done to help change the negative perception. The recent cases of extrajudicial killings of African Americans by the police have only fuelled the mistrust and hatred.

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According to Feld (2013), racial bias is also common in courts when these juveniles are presented before the magistrates and judges. A White teenage male is perceived as meek, law-abiding, and as a victim of circumstance. The presiding judge with a favorable perception towards such a youngster will look for the slightest justification to send him home with just a warning. On the other hand, an African American male may not have such a privilege. The image that comes to mind of a judge is a violent adolescent living in a crime-infested ghetto capable of killing to earn a living. Such a judge may not be keen on understanding the events that led to the arrest of the youngster. He or she will look for the slightest reason that will justify sending the adolescent to the prison for maximum time as stated in the law (Topitzes et al., 2013). Most of these adolescents cannot afford the legal fees for the top lawyers, which leads to the fact that they are always poorly defended in courts. Sometimes the court-appointed lawyers fail to believe them and, as such, request for a slight reduction of their sentence instead of looking into the case and arguing for their acquittal.

Mental Development of the Adolescents

According to Feld (2013), mental development goes through various stages: from the time a child is born to the old-age stage when one needs family support to lead a normal life. It is scientifically proven that the human brain is not fully developed until one reaches the age of 25. Although the law states that 18 years is the legal age, the truth is that at that age one can still make mistakes because of the underdeveloped brain. For teenagers, peer pressure sometimes makes it impossible to reason correctly. At this stage of development, the desire for acceptance and admiration among peers is always greater than their understanding of the law. The neighborhoods, in which some of these African American adolescents live, expose them to drug use and peddling, prostitution, mugging, and many other illegal acts. Some of them face situations where the only way to achieve a sense of belonging is to engage in these vices.

These adolescents find themselves being used to smuggling drugs in the neighborhood. In their less-developed mind, they do not consider moving drugs from one place to another as something amoral if it is what can bring food to the table or make them be considered heroes among their peers. Bright and Jonson-Reid (2015) say that at that tender age, it is easy to manipulate such teenagers. Sometimes they may question acts they consider unethical such as mugging. However, it takes a short time to manipulate them. It is important to note that these adolescents may be subjected to undue pressure from adults. They are threatened with various forms of punishment if they fail to do as directed by their adult friends or family members. Their underdeveloped brain makes it difficult for them to know how to handle such threats. The fear of punishment and the limited options available to them leave adolescents with no option but to engage in criminal acts.

The mental capacity of these teenagers should define the kind of approach that the court takes when deciding their cases. Correctional facilities help in eliminating “wrong elements” from the streets. However, it is also important to note that these facilities can act as institutions where teenagers are transformed into hardened criminals. Charles Milles Manson and many other worst criminals America has ever had first went to prison as teenagers. Living with an abusive family and hanging around drug peddlers, Manson started using drugs as a transit laborer. He was arrested and sentenced to serve a jail term at the age of 17. While in prison, he was sexually abused and faced other physical brutalities at the hands of other inmates. After serving his term and being released, he became a worse criminal than he was when sentenced to serve a term in jail as a teenager. He transformed into one of the worst serial killers in America’s history.

Manson is currently serving a life sentence at Corcoran State Prison (Guinn, 2014). He is a clear example of a teenager who was misunderstood at a very critical stage of his development. Instead of getting assistance that he needed at that time, the juvenile system considered it wise for him to be sent to prison and treated as an adult. The outcome was that instead of becoming a law-abiding citizen, he was transformed into a hardened robber, a rapist, and a serial killer. He, and many others like him, is a demonstration of how the juvenile justice system is failing in its noble duty of positively transforming juvenile delinquents. The system is failing to appreciate the fact that these adolescents need to be understood before they are sent to jail. The science of brain development should always guide law enforcement officers, the prosecution officers, and the judges when handling juvenile offenders.

Possible Causes of Juvenile Delinquency

It is important to look at the possible reasons that may lead to juvenile delinquency. According to Feld (2013), adolescence is a critical stage of development where juveniles try to deal with various issues associated with their development. They often misinterpret their physical growth as a sign that they can make independent decisions without the help of adults. Their desire to gain the admiration of their peers makes them do things, which may be against the law. The following are some of the leading factors associated with juvenile delinquency in the United States and many other countries around the world.

Maltreatment of the adolescents

According to Topitzes et al. (2013), maltreatment of adolescents is one of the leading reasons why they get involved in acts of crime. Instead of getting the love, care, and attention that they need most at this critical stage of self-discovery, some of them are subjected to neglect, physical and verbal abuse, and sexual molestation that leave the distraught. Some parents rarely have time for their children because they have to spend most of their time at work. Other parents or guardians expose these juveniles to experiences that torture their minds. Such victims of maltreatments may break the law because of the psychological trauma they have to face. Sometimes they are forced into acts of crime by people who should be protecting and guiding them towards a path of success, law, and order.

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The United States is popularly known as the land where dreams come true or the land of opportunities. However, the truth is that a section of the society lives in poverty. Children raised in poor families face unique challenges, especially when they reach the adolescent stage. They admire the good life of their colleagues from rich families, but they cannot change the current state of affairs. Hunger may drive them to steal or engage in immoral practices. The juvenile justice system should be capable of treating such cases as special. Sending such children to prison may only transform them negatively. According to Feld (2013), African Americans, after many years of being discriminated against in society, are the worst affected group in terms of wealth. It explains why the majority of the adolescent male who is always involved in economic-related crime are African Americans. Some of them are homeless and have no one to rely on to fulfill their basic needs. In a system that is favorable to the rich but very harsh to the poor and uneducated, they find themselves becoming members of criminal groups.

The environment

The neighborhoods within which adolescents stay define their behavioral patterns. During their mental development, the brain processes what is common as being normal. When the crime is prevalent in the neighborhood, these adolescents tend to consider it as a normal way of life (Heilbrun, DeMatteo, King, & Filone, 2017). They see it happen and they do not fear practicing it. Albert Bandura’s Cognitive of Theory of Development holds that environmental influencers play a critical role in the learning of a child. What they see and interact with defining what they become. It is, therefore, common to find children who grow up in crime-infested areas becoming delinquents.

School failure

In a study by Bright and Jonson-Reid (2015), African American children are more than twice as likely to drop out of school as their White peers. The system in the United States is designed to ensure that the middle class and the poor go to school to work for the rich. School failure means that such a child will be of no use to society. They are constantly reminded of the suffering ahead of them because of their limited education. Because of their despair and vulnerability, they become easy targets of criminal gangs keen on recruiting teenagers to help them in peddling or trafficking drugs. They can also be used in various other ways by these criminals.

Poorly developed social skills

According to Feld (2013), poorly developed social skills constitute another reason that may lead an adolescent to engage in criminal acts. This problem affects adolescents of all races, social classes, religions, and many other demographical factors. It happens when a child lacks social support from parents and immediate family members at various critical stages of their development. Cognitive dissonance is a common problem among such adolescents as their behavior becomes erratic. They struggle to develop a personal identity and sometimes try to be overly adventurous to discover it. Rape is one of the common criminal offenses that such adolescents commit.

Limited communal support

Children need communal support during their various developmental stages. Religious institutions such as churches, temples, and mosques have traditionally been important places where teenagers get support. They are helped to cope with problems of peer pressure, the need for acceptance and a sense of belonging, and physical changes in their body. However, the relevance of churches and many other related institutions is diminishing at alarming rates. Most parents no longer have time to go to church. It means that the communal support that teenagers would get in the past is no longer available (Topitzes et al., 2013). With habitually absent parents to guide them, the adolescents are left to take care of themselves in many families.

The solution to the Problem

The United Nations’ child protection laws require every country to handle child offenders differently from the way adults are handled. Scientific studies and common knowledge prove that children cannot reason like adults. That is why even in the past when there was little scientific understanding of the brain, children had to be guided by adults and their mistakes were treated differently from the mistakes of adults. The juvenile justice system must have a better understanding of the brain development of adolescents. The system was established to help juvenile delinquents to transform into law-abiding citizens capable of making positive contributions to the development of the nation (Jonson-Reid et al., 2013). However, studies show that the approach taken by most of the officers of this system is not helping the youth. It is important to find a better solution to this problem than the approach which is currently in use.

In the United States, there is an urgent need to address the overrepresentation of African American adolescent males within the juvenile system. The mistrust that the police officers have towards African Americans, in general, should change. When it is necessary to make an arrest, the law enforcement agents should do it in a dignified manner and for a justified reason. Before locking up a juvenile, irrespective of the race, it is necessary to ascertain that he is a prime suspect. The prosecution unit and the judges should avoid personal bias when the case is presented in court. The decision should purely be based on facts and with an understanding that the brain of these adolescents is still developing. Judges should not be quick to send these adolescents to prison. Instead, genuine effort should be made to transform them outside a jail.

The society needs functional institutions that can help mold adolescents to overcome varying challenges that they face in life. Learning institutions play a critical role in molding the teenagers to become successful and responsible citizens. Institutions of worship should also help in identifying specific challenges that adolescents face with the view of finding appropriate solutions. Parents should understand their role in the development of their children. Parenting is not just about providing food, shelter, clothing, and other pleasantries to the family. These teenagers need the attention of their parents to know how to overcome some of the challenges they face in life. Most critically, the juvenile justice system should avoid victimization of African American adolescent males and be committed to helping all youngsters who are breaking the law to become productive members of society.

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The juvenile justice system is meant to help to transform juvenile delinquents into law-abiding and productive citizens who are playing a critical role in the economic development of the country. However, studies indicate that a significant number of juveniles who are taken to these correctional facilities are more likely to commit serious offenses after their release than those who have never been convicted. It is also worrying that African American adolescent males are overrepresented in these institutions. The law enforcement agencies and the judicial system need to understand that adolescents’ brain is still developing and that some of the crimes they commit are because of duress. The officers of the court and the law enforcement agencies should be fair and keen on transforming the behavior of these adolescents other than being quick to send them to jail. Any form of bias or prejudice should be avoided when handling these children. Parents are also advised to play their parenting role to help shape the lives and future of their children.


Bright, C., & Jonson-Reid, M. (2015). Multiple service system involvement and later offending behavior: Implications for prevention and early intervention. American Journal of Public Health, 105(7), 1358–1364. Web.

Cherry, A., Baltag, V., & Dillon, M. (2016). International handbook on adolescent health and development: The public health response. Cham, Switzerland: Springer Nature Press.

Feld, B. (2013). Juvenile justice administration in a nutshell. Saint Paul, MN: West Academic.

Guinn, J. (2014). Manson: The life and times of Charles Manson. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

Heilbrun, K., DeMatteo, D., King, C., & Filone, S. (2017). Evaluating juvenile transfer and disposition: Law, science, and practice. New York, NY: Francis & Taylor.

Jonson-Reid, M., Drake, B., & Zhou, P. (2013). Neglect subtypes, race, and poverty: Individual, family, and service characteristics. Child Maltreatment, 18(1), 30–41. Web.

Topitzes, J., Mersky, J., & Reynolds, A., (2013). From child maltreatment to violent offending: An examination of mixed-gender and gender-specific models. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 27(12), 2322–2347. Web.

Williams,J., Dorn, R., Bright, C., Jonson-Reid, M., & Nebbitt, V. (2010). Child maltreatment and delinquency onset among African American adolescent males. PMC Journals, 20(3), 253–259. Web.

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