As it stands, children and adolescents under age 18 in the state of Rhode Island can be sentenced to life without parole. This defies both common sense and science.
It is well known that the brains of children and adolescents are not fully developed. Specifically, the pre-frontal cortex, that portion of the brain responsible for weighing consequences of one’s actions and making calm and considered decisions, does not mature until the early 20s. Any parent of a teenager knows what this means. However, the part of the young brain that develops earliest is the amygdala. This is the more primitive, “emotional” part that reacts to stress and seeks excitement and immediate reward.
Given these neurological factors, it is easy to see why young people, in particular adolescents as they move away from parental oversight and come under the influence of peers, are prone to risky behaviors.
Complicating the picture is the fact that as many as 80 percent of juvenile lifers have reported witnessing violence. In many instances, this occurs from early ages and extends into adolescence. Witnessing violence is a known cause of childhood trauma with serious consequences for children’s emotional, social and physical development. Research indicates that immature brains develop hyper-arousal adaptations to trauma that can become maladaptive in different life contexts. Exposure to violence not only traumatizes, it teaches the young person that violence is a way to solve problems.
By Jacqueline Sparks June 16, 2015