When a young person is charged with a crime, a lot can be at stake. This is especially the case when prosecutors attempt to have the youth certified to be tried as an adult. While the juvenile justice system generally incorporates an understanding of the need for rehabilitation and assistance, the criminal system operates on a different set of assumptions. These assumptions do not always fit for the young, who are still developing.
Reliable research in brain development shows that it isn't only teens who lack the necessary cognitive skills to fully understand the consequences of poor choices. Major brain development, it has been shown, continues up until the age of 25. By that time, of course, individuals are considered to be adults and are fully subject to the criminal justice system with all of its assumptions regarding how criminals need to be handled.
Experts in juvenile brain development, looking at the research, have been suggesting that the criminal justice system needs to take research into account when dealing with young offenders. Unfortunately, research also shows that inserting young people into the prison system negatively impacts their ability to rehabilitate, despite the fact that they are actually more capable of rehabilitation than inmates with fully developed brains.
A number of potential changes to the criminal justice system have been proposed by experts, but the core of these suggestions is that experts need to tap into the ability to bring about positive changes in a young offender. This isn't just positive thinking---science backs it up.
Young people accused of criminal offenses have need, of course, of an advocate who understands the importance of rehabilitation and who can help minimize the long-term consequences of poor decisions. This is especially the case when trial as an adult is a possibility.
Source: Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, "Should Young Adult Offenders Be Treated More Like Juveniles?," Gary Gately, June 5, 2014.