It was outrageous and unwise. A Florida teen inspired by his high school journalism class bought a plane ticket last month and went to Iraq to see what the country is experiencing. He’s back home, after journalists in Baghdad convinced him of the danger.
In November, a 13-year-old boy ran away from a juvenile counseling center and stole a Mesa police car. The Fountain Hills teen later gave himself up to police. His embarrassed mother refused to give interviews.
Teenagers do the craziest things. Adults often blame their impulsive behavior on excess energy or raging hormones. Scientific evidence, though, is pointing to a different source: The brain.
As researchers study how brain development affects teens’ behavior, their findings are leading many juvenile justice advocates and experts to wonder whether teenagers accused of crimes should ever be tried as adults.
In the past decade, high-profile acts of adolescent violence such as the 1999 Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colo., that killed 12 students and a teacher have prompted states to adopt stricter policies to deal with juvenile crime.
"The trend has been a greater willingness to prosecute juveniles as adults, and automatic referrals of juveniles to adult court," says Barbara Atwood, a University of Arizona law professor. "But there’s this growing pressure to rethink that, given what we know about brain development."
The research showing that teenagers lack the connections to make reasonable decisions already has made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a 5-4 decision in March, the high court determined that it’s unconstitutional to sentence a youth to death if he or she committed the crime before turning 18.
The justices cited studies that show adolescents lack maturity and a sense of responsibility, engage in reckless behavior, are in the process of establishing who they are, and are vulnerable to negative influences and peer pressure.
Recent studies by National Institute of Mental Health show the brain goes through distinct periods of critical grow th, one just before puberty with changes centered on the frontal lobe of the brain, which controls emotions, impulses and reasoning.
The findings show "the human brain does not completely mature until the age of 21," says José Náñez, a social and behavioral scientist at ASU.
Most laws reflect that a youth is an adult at age 18. Because some brains biologically mature later than others, 18 may be too early for some youths to be treated as adults. In the courts, this means that some youth may not be biologically competent to stand trial.
A survey by the MacArthur Foundation supports that idea.
Researchers working with the private philanthropic organization in 2002 released a two-year study of 1,400 young people ages 11 to 24 who were in jail or juvenile detention centers.
They tested the youths to assess their competence to stand trial.
The researchers found kids 11 to 13 were three times as likely as young adults 18 to 24 to be "seriously impaired" in judgment and comprehension skills, and those 14 to 15 were twice as likely to be seriously impaired.
Researchers concluded that "a significantly greater proportion of juveniles in the community who are 15 and younger, and an even larger proportion of juvenile offenders this age, are probably not competent to stand trial."
They warned that states, including Arizona, that allow some juveniles to be tried as adults may want to reexamine their policies because most adolescents under age 13 could be deemed incompetent for trial.
Some advocates believe science boosts their argument for rehabilitating young criminals through the juvenile court system.
But others see that science, if misapplied, can interfere with potential treatment.
Barbara Marshall, a Maricopa deputy county attorney, was head of the agency’s juvenile division until recently.
She saw the dangers of misusing the science of teenage brains to argue for juvenile incompetence.
"If they’re found not competent and not restorable, then they don’t go into treatment," Marshall says.
Consider the case of a Maricopa County boy, "Luis G."
In 2002, the 12-year-old was accused of trying to grope, restrain and molest a girl on a school bus.
He was charged in juvenile court with attempted child molestation, a class 3 felony; kidnapping, a class 2 felony; and three counts of sexual abuse, all class 3 felonies.
Luis’ defense attorney sought competency reviews.
After several assessments, and at the advice of a psychiatrist, the Maricopa County juvenile court in 2003 determined Luis was incompetent to stand trial because of his immaturity and because his brain wasn’t fully developed.
The Appeals Court upheld the decision.
Marshall says science is preventing treatment for the boy, now 14.
"I don’t think anyone doing those brain studies ever intended them to be used that way," she says.
The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office is seeking to have the decision overturned, arguing that the juvenile court was designed to take into account the immaturity of juveniles such as Luis and would better serve them.