Adolescence, Brain Development and Legal Culpability


2002, the U.S. Supreme Court banned the execution of mentally retarded persons. This decision, Atkins v. Virginia, cited the underdeveloped mental capacities of those with mental retardation as a major factor behind the Justices’ decision.

Adolescence is a transitional period during which a child is becoming, but is not yet, an adult. An adolescent is at a cross- roads of changes where emotions, hormones, judgment, identity and the physical body are so in flux that parents and even experts struggle to fully understand.

As a society, we recognize the limitations of adolescents and, therefore, restrict their privileges to vote, serve on a jury, con- sume alcohol, marry, enter into contracts, and even watch movies with mature content. Each year, the United States spends billions of dollars to promote drug use prevention and sex edu- cation to protect youth at this vulnerable stage of life. When it comes to the death penalty, however, we treat them as fully func- tioning adults.

The Basics of the Human Brain

The human brain has been called the most complex three- pound mass in the known universe. This is a well deserved rep- utation, for this organ contains billions of connections among its parts and governs countless actions, involuntary and volun- tary, physical, mental and emotional.

The largest part of the brain is the frontal lobe. A small area of the frontal lobe located behind the forehead, called the pre- frontal cortex, controls the brain’s most advanced functions. This part, often referred to as the “CEO” of the body, provides humans with advanced cognition. It allows us to prioritize thoughts, imagine, think in the abstract, anticipate conse- quences, plan, and control impulses.

Along with everything else in the body, the brain changes significantly during adolescence. In the last five years, scientists, using new technologies, have discovered that adolescent brains are far less developed than previously believed.

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