Developmental Immaturity and Culpability in Juvenile Justice

The juvenile justice system was founded on the intuitive idea that youthful offenders were developmentally different from adults and, therefore, the system required a different approach to intervention and treatment of youths who commit delinquent or criminal acts. Recent studies by Scott and Steinberg (2008) and Cauffman and Steinberg (2012), as well as Supreme Court decisions in Roper v. Simmons, Graham v. Florida, and Miller v. Alabama, have provided compelling evidence and support for the concept of developmental immaturity resulting in reduced culpability of adolescent offenders. Understanding the information provided in the aforementioned sources yields interesting insights surrounding the impact to juvenile justice policy and practice.

Two broad theories have been posed to evaluate the blameworthiness of offenders in American criminal law doctrine: choice theory and character theory (Scott and Steinberg, 2008). Choice theory can best be summarized by the notion that a person who commits a criminal act is fully responsible and deserves full punishment if they are capable of rational thought and have a fair opportunity to not engage in the criminal act. Using an offender’s general social standing, prior history, and related psychological and psychosocial information to show that engaging in a criminal act is abnormal, and therefore not the result of deficient moral character, best summarizes character theory. According to Scott and Steinberg (2008), both theoretical frameworks support the idea that adolescents are less culpable for criminal offenses as a result of poorer decision-making skills and constrained opportunities to avoid criminogenic environments (i.e. choice theory), and adolescents are also in a state of developmental flux wherein their moral character is not fully formed (i.e. character theory).

Further expounding on the aforementioned ideas, Cauffman and Steinberg (2012) explain that brain systems responsible for controlling many aspects of social and emotional maturity continue development throughout adolescence and into adulthood, and recent work in developmental neuroscience has linked both physiological and functional markers in brain development with the aforementioned psychological changes. These developmental changes support the idea that adolescents, as a group, are less culpable based on the theoretical frameworks outlined by choice theory and character theory because of the unique manner in which humans mature. Additional support for reduced culpability of adolescents has been presented in U.S. Supreme Court rulings in Roper v. Simmons, Graham v. Florida, and Miller v. Alabama. In each of the aforementioned cases, the Court has ruled that youthful offenders possess diminished responsibility on the basis of immaturity and vulnerability to negative influences, as well as greater potential for reform due to the changeability of their character.

One final point that should be made with regard to understanding developmental differences in adolescents revolves around current practices of incarceration and transfer to adult court. Cauffman and Steinberg (2012) report that trying adolescents as adults or submitting them to harsh sanctions does little to deter delinquent behavior, and may actually have negative effects on youths' mental stability and health, psychosocial development, and proclivity for further antisocial behavior. Keeping the key points outlined above in mind, it becomes imperative to ask the following question: what does this mean for current and future juvenile justice policy and practice?

According to Cauffman and Steinberg (2012), studies of adolescent development should not be utilized as a single point of reference for “solving” the issue of juvenile delinquency. However, informed responses to juvenile offending as a result of understanding the lessons of developmental science allows the juvenile justice system to respond to youthful offenders in developmentally appropriate ways that will not harm their future prospects by treating adolescents as adults (Cauffman and Steinberg, 2012). In fact, Cauffman and Steinberg (2012) go on to explicitly state that no single policy regime will provide positive outcomes for all adolescents entering into the juvenile court system, but understanding and utilizing developmental research as a guide will provide a strong foundation for policies and practices that enhance public safety by implementing effective treatments for adolescents instead of ineffective punitive sanctions.

The supporting evidence is overwhelmingly conclusive that adolescents are developmentally different from adults in ways that mitigate culpability. Continuing to study these differences, and using that knowledge to influence policies and practices in juvenile justice, remains crucial to the success of the juvenile justice system. As evidenced by the Supreme Court rulings referenced above, it is also critical in maintaining fair and just sanctions for adolescents who become subjected to the adult court system. In short, the principle of proportionality and its direct relation to culpability, as have been long established in criminal law, must be upheld in accordance with developmental differences among all offenders, not just the mentally incompetent or handicapped.


Cauffman, E., & Steinberg, L. (2012). Emerging findings from research on adolescent development and juvenile justice. Victims & Offenders 7: 428-449.

Scott, E. S., & Steinberg, L. (2008). Rethinking Juvenile Justice. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press

Graham v. Florida and Sullivan v. Florida. (n.d.). American Psychological Association (APA). Retrieved May 30, 2013, from

Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs . (n.d.). American Psychological Association (APA). Retrieved May 30, 2013, from