On Dec. 11, 2019, Barnard College first-year student Tessa Majors was stabbed to death in Manhattan’s Morningside Park. Three boys were arrested in connection with her murder. Two of the boys, both 14 years old at the time, were charged as adults for the crimes of second-degree murder and robbery. On Sept. 21, 2021, one of those boys pled guilty to Majors’ killing.
The loss of Tessa Majors is, unequivocally, a tragedy. However, so is charging these adolescents as adults.
The practice of adult waiver — or the ability to charge a minor as an adult — ignores important developmental processes and condemns young people to a future of stigmatization, physical and mental health problems, low educational and occupational attainment, and potentially life imprisonment. Accordingly, in 2017, the New York State Legislature enacted the Raise the Age legislation, raising the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 years of age for non-violent crimes. However, across the nation, and in New York, adult waivers are still used for violent crimes — and harsh sentences are still given to youth under 18. A careful understanding of the science of adolescent development supports the abolition of these paths to harsh punishment.
We know from decades of research that the structure of the brain and the connections among brain regions are not fully developed by age 18 (the legal cut for delineating adolescents and adults and the new age of criminal responsibility in NY). Additionally, cognitive functions related to decision-making and in the ability to regulate emotions continue to develop well past the age of 18.
Time and time again, studies show that adolescents are more likely to make risky decisions and are more susceptible than adults to making risky decisions in arousing and exciting conditions, including when they are around their peers as in the case of Majors’ murder. Much of the work, though, involves individuals who have not committed violent acts or who have not been inside our criminal legal system (through our courts and/or incarcerated).
In research involving youth who have engaged in violence or who have been in the criminal legal system, differences in the brain and tendency to make risky decisions is even more extreme compared to youth not engaging in criminal behavior or encountering the legal system. Some of the most well-replicated research indicates that youth who chronically violate social norms and who are continuously defiant toward authority display difficulties utilizing executive functions, including inhibiting behavior, planning behavior, and thinking abstractly. These difficulties are intensified when motivational factors, like rewards, are present. Evidence of abnormalities in executive functioning are evident in behavior and the brain.
In general, adolescents who commit crimes, including violent crimes, show psychological and neural abnormalities that can affect their ability to fully control and plan their behavior. However, there is no evidence that these differences are permanent, even for those who some may characterize as the most “extreme” offenders.
In fact, even without any intervention, a callous disregard for others, impulsivity, and criminal activity decrease for the majority of youth starting in late adolescence into adulthood. Therefore, adolescent behavior, by itself, is not a strong predictor of future dangerousness. Importantly, with intervention, youth who commit violent crimes can, in fact, change. This change is seen in their behavior and there is some preliminary evidence to suggest that change occurs in the brain, too.
Unfortunately, the most effective treatments are not usually offered in juvenile and adult correctional facilities. Therefore, sentencing an adolescent to long prison stays and housing them adult prisons, more often than not, will stifle their chance for change.
Science clearly demonstrates that adolescents are different than adults in their brain and psychological functioning. Science also shows that adolescence is a peak period for change, either naturally or through appropriate intervention. Any criminal justice practice that views adolescents as adults defies science and robs these youth of opportunities for change and society of their potential contributions.
Baskin-Sommers is an associate professor of psychology and of psychiatry at Yale University, who currently resides in New York City. She is also a member of the Yale Justice Collaboratory.