Report urges reforming juvenile justice based on science

    “Adult crime — adult time” has been one of the many battle cries calling for tough sentences for juvenile offenders. A new report commissioned by the federal justice department suggests that this approach doesn’t work.

    For this report, researchers reviewed scientific studies on the brains of adolescents as well as common juvenile justice practices around the country.

    Robert Johnson, dean of the UMDNJ-New Jersey Medical School in Newark oversaw this report. He says research shows that our brains are not fully developed until well into adulthood, and adolescents do not think like adults.

    For example, Johnson says they can’t fully understand consequences, therefore the threat of tough sentences isn’t a deterrent.

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    “There is no appreciation of those severe consequences,” explained Johnson. “The other thing we found is that instead of decreasing possibility of re-offending, if we have very harsh punishments, we increase re-offending.”

    Johnson says that time served in adult prisons leads to more re-offending, as young offenders tend to take cues from older criminals.

    He adds that many states including New Jersey and Pennsylvania are leaning toward juvenile justice approaches that take brain development into account.

    He says if juvenile offenders serve time, that time should be spent in a way that will put them on a better path toward success in life.

    “In the long run, you need to make sure that whatever you do with a young person is something that allows them to move away from behaviors we don’t want, and that allows them to become very successful adults,” said Johnson.

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