In Maryland, not long ago, a boy of 13 was riding in a car involved in a gang-related shooting. The state is one of many with the “felony murder” doctrine — any role in a felony that results in death can entail a murder charge. Maryland also authorizes judges to send children that young to adult court. The boy got 40 years in Prison.
Harsh? Actually, a sentence of life-without-parole has not been uncommon in America even for juveniles under 18 — until in 2012 the Supreme Court ruled that out, except in rare cases. But such youngsters are still often treated as adults in the Criminal Justice system.
Neuroscience has found that the human Brain doesn’t develop to maturity until well into one’s twenties. Particularly laggard is the prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision making. We’ve always known teenagers can be irresponsible, and this brain research explains it. They just don’t yet have the mental equipment — we’re not talking about simple stupidity here — to regulate their behavior in a mature adult way. Thus their greater proclivity to act in ways that break the law.
They normally grow out of it, and don’t become hardened criminals. Unless they’re put in prison for years alongside older people who are hardened criminals.
While the mentioned brain maturation is normal, another large segment of our prison population consists of people not psychologically normal, but instead mentally ill. A very different thing. The “insanity defense” in criminal trials is actually very restrictive, rarely invoked. Most people who commit crimes because they’re mentally unbalanced wind up in prison.
That’s no surprise. But I recently learned another aspect of this that I hadn’t realized. Another big part of the prison picture is brain injury. Not psychological, but physical, resulting from a knock on the head. Here again the prefrontal cortex (behind your forehead) is prominent. Damage there can also impair judgment. People who act out violently due to brain injury constitute a major segment of our prison population.
Who are the most likely sufferers? Those living where street violence is common, and where their own parents are more apt to knock them around. Receiving hits on the head damaging the brain — causing behavior that leads to prison.
And of course a great many people are incarcerated in the “war on drugs.” I’ve written before how crazy this is. You might defend it if it actually curbed drug use, but of course it does not, while the drug war itself rampages a path of destruction throughout society, destroying lives not only in prison but in a penumbra of other human impacts. Drug use should be a public health matter, not a criminal justice one. (We are, very slowly, at last moving in that direction.)
I am not a bleeding heart, blaming “society” for crime, nor believing a lack of free will relieves us of responsibility for our actions. Misdeeds merit punishment. But, in all the ways I’ve explained, we go way overboard on that. Thus America has by far the highest incarceration rate of any country on Earth. This wasn’t always true. Our incarceration rate has exploded over the last few decades.Surely not due to way more crime. It’s because our criminal justice system is way out of whack.
Too often failing to give people help instead of prison terms that wantonly destroy lives. Like when a 13 year old is sentenced to 40 years. We should instead treat with human compassion people who are drug addicts, who commit crimes because their brains aren’t fully developed, or were damaged by injury or illness. We as a society have no such excuses for the crime of how we treat them instead.
This post first appeared on The Rational Optimist | Frank S. Robinson's Blog On Life, Society, Politics, And Philosophy, please read the originial post: here