by The Starks Shrink

There is a drastic problem in our society with charging and incarcerating juveniles as adults. When we look at our society as a whole, we do not classify children as adults for a number of critical adult matters; they cannot drive until 16 in most states, they cannot vote until 18 and they cannot drink until 21.  Why is that?  It’s because we do not deem them responsible enough to take on tasks that could adversely affect society as a whole.  So when they act in a manner that is criminal, why do we then flip-flop and hold them to adult standards with accompanying draconian punishments?

ado6In 2010, in the US, 12-15 year olds made up over 50% of juveniles formally detained for crimes against another person (not necessarily violent), and in that same year, 53% of violent youth crimes (those processed in juvenile court) were committed by juveniles under 16 years of age.  But each year, 250,000 juveniles in the US are charged as adults in criminal proceedings.

The Supreme Court held that juveniles could not be subjected to the death penalty and more recently, in 2012, struck down as unconstitutional an Alabama law that allowed courts to subject juveniles to mandatory life imprisonment without parole.  They stated:

Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark featuresamong them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences.   

adoThe arguments were, in a nutshell, that children lack the ability of adults to resist impulses of their own or the influences of others, and to fully comprehend the consequences and risks of those behaviors. More often than ever we prosecute juveniles as adults because of a public outcry based on the nature of the crimes. The problem with this is that we perceive not only the nature of the crime from an adult perspective but the nature of the child’s ability to grasp the anti-social, and oftentimes disturbing, nature of his or her actions as manifested in the crimes he or she commits.

Let me elaborate. We, the public, watch the news about a juvenile who has committed a murder and we see the child on the news laughing or smirking as they are taken into custody. We, the public, are outraged at the lack of remorse that we think we see played out on the television screen. In reality, what we may be witnessing is the adolescent, ado7confronted with media and cameras for the first time, who feels amazed to be on television. The reality of the crime and its ramifications are entirely separate from the fact that they are suddenly noteworthy. That is the reality of youth. I’m not trying to say that children don’t commit horrific crimes. They do. But we have to ask ourselves why, and we have to ask ourselves; do we throw these kids away or do we rescue them? Because when we make choices about incarceration, those are the choices we ultimately make. If we remand a child to adult custody we guarantee that at least 32% of them will reoffend when they hit the streets again.  In fact, we train them to reoffend.

Juveniles that commit crimes are often in dire need of psychological and emotional counseling. Somewhere along the way in their short lives, perhaps through a combination of genetics and experience, they have developed behaviors that do not allow them to function well in civilized society. The nature of the juvenile brain gives us the ado2opportunity to correct those behaviors and thought patterns which may not be possible once they are adults and their brains have “matured”. Science has discovered that the juvenile brain is physically quite different from the adult brain and continues to change and develop until about age 20. Psychologically, the same can be said. In fact, criteria in the DSM even preclude diagnosing children under 18 with several of the more serious illnesses for the same reason; the brain and personality are still in development and the child could grow out of certain symptoms on his own. However, if a child is incarcerated for punishment and we attempt to correct aberrant behavior through psychotherapy the results are not likely to be successful.  The child may respond well in therapeutic sessions but then is placed into a prison population where behaviors diametrically opposed to what we desire are actually rewarded through positive “jailhouse reinforcement”. Neural pathways are established through patterns of thought and behavior, especially in a developing juvenile brain.  When patterns are rewarded, they become established and are reused like a well-worn path, and they become increasingly difficult to change. With the juvenile brain, we have a unique opportunity to identify and alter neural pathways to affect real results in youths that we may be unable to achieve when they reach full maturity.

sky5sky7Take, for example; Rachel Shaof and Shelia Eddy, a pair of teenage girls who murdered their best friend, Skylar Neese, seemingly in cold blood. I am not attempting to label them with a diagnosis, I am simply using their observed behavior as an example in a hypothetical situation. Rachel could have been a teen that was evolving towards a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder (BPD). She had a great fear of abandonment and lacked a strong sense of self. She did exhibit remorse but we have no way of knowing whether that was regret for her actions and its effects, or for the resulting situation in which she found herself, which is a classic trait of BPD. Shelia, on the other hand, could be said to have narcissistic and antisocial traits along with a history of manipulation and little regard for those around her. The two of them made a perfect abnormal pair and fed off each other’s psychological symptoms. No amount of therapy, when combined with placing the two of them together for extended periods, would be successful since their behavior together rewards the very thoughts we are attempting to alter. While Shelia’s narcissism is rewarded through erosion of Rachel’s sense of self, Rachel is comforted in her emotional neediness by the attention Shelia is giving her.

ado4In addition to our inability to psychologically treat disorders in a prison-like environment, we also lose the ability to teach patterns of normal social interaction. Normal juvenile social situations such as school, sports, jobs, etc., teach children how to behave in the world as their brains mature. They learn that there are consequences for antisocial behavior, they learn that there are rewards for generous behavior or hard work and the neural networks that affect these patterns are developed. These are patterns that cannot be taught through academics or through parenting, they must be developed within their own peer groups. When we remove these beneficial growth environs, the child becomes emotionally incapable of dealing with normal social situations. Instead, they learn from their current surroundings. Since the brain is still in development, they will have no positive social patterns to rely on when they are finally released back into society because those neural networks have never been established. As in the example of Eddy and Shoaf, they will be transferred to adult prison when they reach 18 years of age, at which time, all attempts to rescue them from a psychological standpoint will cease. They will be released at some point in their 30s having learned patterns of thought and behavior that only lend themselves to their own survival with no thought of how those behaviors may impact others, since in prison, those thoughts are of no consequence. And their juvenile brains will have adapted their neural pathways to perfectly suit the dog-eat-dog environment of adult prison.

ado5We need to collectively devise a system in which youth offenders can be treated, coached and developed into healthy productive adults. I am not suggesting that we turn a blind eye to their criminal activities and turn them loose in society, quite the opposite. It is precisely those types of actions that have led to their involvement in the judicial system. We need to recognize that children are not disposable, and that transferring children to adult facilities or charging them as adults, does exactly that – it tosses them onto the dung heap of lost opportunity. I suspect that as a whole, we are unwilling to admit our own partial culpability in their actions or psychological distress, and so we hide them away and label them as bad seeds, so that we don’t have to face ourselves and come to grips with our own shortcomings and how these flaws may have helped create an overall social environment in which those lost souls were unable to flourish.


Please click here to view The Starks Shrink’s Previous Post on Skylar Neese and the Mean Girls Who Killed Her

Skylar Neese and the Mean Girls Who Killed Her


14 Responses to Rehabbing the Wounded Juvenile Will Save Their Souls (and Ours)

  1. Lori says:

    Great article! I have brought home some very disturbed kids from residential treatment centers over the years and although sometimes it’s hard to tell how much is environmental and trauma based and how much is genetic or organic mental health issues it always helps to treat them as and put them in the most normalized (but very structured) environment. I have found that if you treat kids as perfectly normal teenagers they will begin to act like them. Not always pleasant or compliant. Sometimes meds are necessary even though none of us like that and worry about the effects on a growing body and developing brain. Therapy is essential and can also be difficult at times to get the kid to buy into but even they see the benefits if they do.

    Thank you for advocating for these troubled (and sometimes dangerous) kids, they are not disposable, they are worthwhile and fully human beings.

  2. Darcia Helle says:

    Brilliant piece!

    I recently read a book called Destructive Justice: A Lost Boy, a Broken System and the Small Light of Hope, written by the father of a child (now adult) criminal. At 17 years old, the boy was tried as an adult for robbery, and sentenced to multiple life sentences (1 for each of the 4 people in the building at the time) with no possibility of parole. No one was hurt at all during the robbery and, incredibly, nothing was stolen! The kid and his 30-something partner ran away empty handed. The father makes no claim that his son was completely innocent, only that the system failed him miserably.

    I’ve never understood the dichotomy between handing our kids a gun and sending them to battle at 18, while not allowing them to have a beer in a bar before the age of 21. This treating a child as an adult in court is even more absurd. We absolutely have to do better with and for our children.

    Thank you for shining some light on this topic.

    • PatrickHMoore says:

      I agree. This is a very strong piece which certainly helps us understand what we already intuitively known — that children should not be tried as adults.

    • Starks Shrink says:

      Thanks for your support, I expected to get tarred and feathered since prevailing sentiment seems to be ‘hang ’em high’. I am off now to find a copy of the book you mention, it sounds like a riveting read.

  3. Rick says:

    Starks – You’ve penned a very insightful post. I especially like your focus on the plasticity of a child’s brain, which is one of the main reasons for having a juvenile justice system. I wouldn’t be surprised to see “law and order” types advocate abolition of the juvenile system and try everyone as adults. After all, doesn’t a 7 year old who shoots his younger sibling deserve to be sentenced to LWOP in an adult prison?

  4. Lori says:

    Our society is so reactive when it should try more proactive approaches at times. The knee jerk reaction and “hang em high” (good one!) attitude was such a political response along with the tough on crime crap that is profiting our prison corporations nicely. The main reason we saw such a HUGE increase in juvenile crime from 1988 to 2000 was because our baby boomers kids were all becoming teenagers and our country had the largest percentage of this age group it had ever had. We also had an economy that wasn’t ready for them and we should have seen them coming. The reason the rate has dropped so much for juvenile crime is in part because we don’t have so many of that age group in comparison to the rest of us, they have grown up and (the ones that survived without LWOP) their brains have also matured.

    Now our next crisis can be who will help care for all their aging parents in years to come with them locked up?

    Rick, your hypothetical 7 year old- is this a repeat offender…?

    Starks, again, this was such a fine article and it just haunts me to no end that people aren’t using their common sense when it comes to kids but listening to crappy propaganda from our crappy media. That doesn’t sound judgmental does it?

    • Rick says:

      Lori – The 7-year old in my hypothetical is a serious recidivist, having stolen candy from stores on 10 previous occasions. Lock ’em up and enrich the Corrections Corporation of America!! :)

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