Examining the ramifications of child abuse and neglect, especially as to how it relates to juvenile offenders is a controversial topic. Should children and adolescents who have been the victims of abuse and neglect be subjected to the same criminal standards as adults? Should a youth who committed a felony be given probation or housed with adult criminals?
A youth that has been exposed to child abuse should be shown more leniency in the court system. Yet, some states are prosecuting juveniles through the adult system. Some individuals feel it is smart way to deter crime, while others feel that it can be unconstitutional and ineffective to charge a juvenile as an adult. There are many factors to consider when trying a youth in adult court. One of these factors is that a youth’s brain is different than an adult brain. A non-traumatized adolescent brain is not fully formed until one’s twenties. One important brain region is the prefrontal cortex, in charge of reasoning, planning, managing emotions and impulses, communication, displaying empathy, and understanding how one’s actions affects somebody else . Research by Golden et al. (1996) states that the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until an individual is in the late stages of adolescence. If this brain part is not fully formed, how can we subject juvenile offenders to the same legal standards as adult offenders?

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A youth that is exposed to trauma, such as child abuse, often experiences problems in their neurological development. Dr. Bruce Perry explains these differences. Brain function is organized in a specific hierarchy. The cortical function deals with abstract and concrete thoughts, while the limbic part controls emotions, motor regulation, sexual behavior, and attachment. The midbrain focuses on hunger, sleep, and arousal, while the brainstem regulates involuntary functions. In a healthy brain of a youth who has not been traumatized, cortical and limbic components of a person’s brain are given numbers of 12 and 8, respectively. Midbrain numbers were at 6, while the brainstem numbers were 4. Yet, when studies were conducted that examined a person’s brain that was exposed to trauma, these numbers differed. A trauma exposed brain shows more excessive brainstem and midbrain activity, these numbers 6 and 8 respectively. These increased numbers make the individual highly reactive to stress and more prone to aggressiveness and impulsivity . If an abused youth committed a crime, how accountable should they be? Was their abnormal brain development the cause?

If a person’s judgment, morals, and conscience are not full developed until brain development is finished, my perspective of mental illness and conduct disorder is changed. The prefrontal cortex deals with cognitive functions that are involved before, during, and if a juvenile commits a crime. Yet, we cannot ignore that fact that a youth’s brain is not as highly evolved as an adult’s brain. Does a child diagnosed with Conduct Disorder or another mental illness, such as Antisocial Personality Disorder, really possess the disorder or is the youth just exhibiting typical behavior, resulting from their current stage of brain development?

According to the DSM-V, weapons, stealing, physical cruelty to animals and fighting, lying, starting fires, and destroying property can all be part of a Conduct Disorder diagnosis for youth, refraining from these activities requiring some type of impulse control . If impulse regulation is not completely developed until adulthood, then our criminal justice system should re-think their punishments for abused youth, perhaps moving more toward rehabilitation and early intervention. Youth who have been exposed to drugs and have substance abuse issues also experience brain changes. According to Daniel Amen, drugs can put holes in the brain and interfere with neurological functions, such as how neurotransmitters and natural pain receptors operate . If juvenile offenders show immature brain function, then we need to find ways to rectify this situation, as just handing out punishments or jail time is not an effective long-term solution to decreasing crimes among juvenile offenders.

Up until the time of Cellini’s article, it was known that traumatized youth showed greater cortisol levels, which can overexcite the limbic system. This over activation can cause problems with memory, self-control, moral reasoning, feelings, and thinking about the consequences of potential actions. When researchers examined child abuse from more of an endangerment standard, youth who has been abused and neglected rose from 903,000 to 3 million. New research had also replaced old ways of thinking, such as the effects of child abuse on kids and their brains disappears when they age. We now know that neurological consequences of abuse are often permanent. Youth who have been abused often perceive the world as dangerous and unfeeling, making these youth more prone to violence and mistrust .

Instead of just focusing on punishment and prosecuting juvenile offenders in the court system, the criminal justice system should focus on early intervention. We need to ensure that youth are not subjected to abuse and neglect. When the situation dictates it, we need to remove kids from negative environments by placing these children in kinship care or foster homes. We also need to focus on psychoeducation efforts, providing more support to parents who are in risks groups that place them at a higher risk of abusing their own children, i.e. low income.

The brains of youth are affected by child abuse and neglect. This abnormal development can affect impulse control, aggressiveness, moral reasoning, and emotional reactivity. Research shows that a youth’s prefrontal cortex, an area involved in important cognitive functions, is not fully formed until adulthood. This information impacts the court system, treatment programs, and our intervention focus. Should abused juvenile offenders be processed through the adult criminal justice system or rehabilitated? Perhaps, it is in our society’s best interest for efforts to be focused on changing the brain patterns of adolescent offenders with psychotherapy and behavioral interventions, as well as focusing on preventative measures.

  • Amen, D. (1998). Change Your Brain, Change Your Life. New York: Three Rivers Press.
  • Association, A. P. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental health disorders (DSM-V). Arlington: American Psychiatric Publishing, Incorporated.
  • Cellini, H. R. (2004). Child abuse, neglect, and delinquency: The neurological link. Juvenile and Family Court Journal , 1-14.
  • Fabian, J. M. (2011). Applying Roper v. Simmons in juvenile transfer and waiver proceedings: A legal and neuroscientific inquiry. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology , 732-755.
  • Golden, C., J. M., Peterson-Rohme, A., & Gontkovsky, S. (1996). Neuropsychological correlates of violence and agrgression: A review of the clinical literature. Aggression and Violent Behavior,, 3-25.