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White Paper on the Science of Late Adolescence: A Guide for Judges, Attorneys, and Policy Makers

My high schooler is currently working on a Civics Literacy project in which she is tasked with creating a summary of candidates running for office and including relevant information about their platforms. Citing her resources for the information is important – she knows that if the information purports to “come from her own brain,” the credibility of the underlying information is shaky at best, but if the information comes from a reputable resource, then the likelihood that the information is reliable skyrockets. In turn, her audience (the teacher) is more likely to “believe” what she has presented (which often translates to a good grade). As attorneys, we apply this concept in our practices daily, whether we are drafting a motion to suppress or arguing dispositional factors. We know that there is a difference between binding authority and persuasive authority and that there is a difference between a lay person’s opinion and scientific data. We know these differences make an impact on our audience, the judge, and can change the outcome in court for our clients. Today’s post highlights another tool to add to your arsenal as defenders who understand the importance of making arguments supported by scientific data.

The Center for Law, Brain & Behavior at Massachusetts General Hospital released a White Paper detailing the science and data of developmental neuroscience and related developmental research as applied in the context of juvenile justice as well as adult criminal justice systems:

Research in neuroscience, psychology, and law has contributed to an evolving understanding of both behavioral and brain development during adolescence. This contemporary research has direct implications for juvenile justice policy and practice. This White Paper assembles and synthesizes both foundational and recent scientific developments to provide an updated overview of the science of late adolescence. (Internal citations omitted)

The paper is organized in a manner that front-line defenders can easily understand and allows them to use the information and data quickly and effectively: “The Miller factors […] serve as a framework for organizing and explaining this research and as a means for accounting for the hallmarks of youthful immaturity, the circumstances of their offenses, and their greater prospects for self-desistence with maturation alone or with the support of empirically-based interventions.” The paper has four main sections: Miller Factor 1: Immaturity, Impetuosity, Risk-Taking; Miller Factors 2 and 3: Family and Home, Peer Influence; Miller Factor 4: Understanding Legal Proceedings; and Miller Factor 5: Greater Potential for Rehabilitation.

Notably, the paper also includes a robust appendix that provides a foundational “Introduction to Middle and Late Adolescent Brain Development,” including a discussion of fundamentals, emotional influences, learning and reward systems, and social influences.

Here is an isolated excerpt from the “Miller Factors 2 and 3: Family and Home, Peer Influence section of the paper:

A large-scale study of individuals ages 3–20 found that cortical development is also influenced by parental education and family income.108 Adolescents from disadvantaged backgrounds have less cortical surface area in regions important for language, memory, and executive function. These differences in the brain could account for why underprivileged youth as a group exhibit worse cognitive performance than peers from high-resource backgrounds. Socioeconomic status also relates to differences in functional recruitment of the prefrontal cortex during tasks testing executive function.109

108 Kimberly Noble et al, Family Income, Parental Education and Brain Structure in Children and Adolescents, 18 Nat. Neurosci. 773 (2015).

109 Emily Merz et al, Socioeconomic Inequality and the Developing Brain: Spotlight on Language and Executive Function, 13 Child Development Persp. 15 (2019).

As you can see, even in the single paragraph taken out of the context of the remainder of the section, there is a wealth of data and information you can use as a defender when advocating for your young clients. If you’re working with a forensic psychologist, the information in this white paper can help you to have a more meaningful conversation with your expert about their findings regarding your client. Or maybe you ask the opposing counsel’s expert some questions based on the information in the White Paper: “Doctor, isn’t it true that the presence of adults can reduce risky decision-making for late adolescents?” (See page 25 of the White Paper for the answer and the citation to the research.) “And in this case, you have no information that any adults were ever around this group of children?” (You can see where I might be going with that one!)

I hope that somewhere in the 62 pages of wealth and information that is CLBB’s White Paper on the Science of Late Adolescence: A Guide for Judges, Attorneys, and Policy Makers, you find the nugget of gold (or gold mine) of information and data that you can use to convince your judges to make decisions based on the science and data supporting the development of our young clients.

Access the White Paper here:

Written by Burcu Hensley, Assistant Juvenile Defender with the Office of the Juvenile Defender. She received her Juris Doctor degree from the Campbell University Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law in 2012 and was admitted to the North Carolina State Bar the same year. She quickly narrowed the scope of her practice to solely criminal defense work, starting with the representation of adult clients, and joined the state Juvenile Defender’s office as a contract attorney in 2016, and joined OJD as an Assistant Juvenile Defender in September 2021.



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