Sunday, February 11, 2018

Young adults: not so adult after all

The law may currently view 18-25-year-olds as adults, but we as their lawyers should not—no matter the charges, no matter the court, and no matter the issues that we are litigating.

Thanks to a number of landmark United States Supreme Court decisions handed down over the last decade-and-a-half, it is well established that the wealth of characteristics and circumstances attendant to a juvenile defendant’s age necessarily color a court’s suppression determinations and may, among other things, provide decisive mitigation for sentencing purposes.

Related imageThese decisions dating back to the Court’s 2005 decision in Roper v. Simmons (declaring the death penalty unconstitutional for offenders under the age of 18 at the time of the offense) are grounded in scientific and social-science research that focuses largely on the effects of the brain’s maturation process on youth under the age of 18. Specifically, the Court has recognized that there are fundamental differences between a juvenile and an adult brain. And those differences—accounting for a less developed character, immaturity, vulnerability and susceptibility to negative influences and outside pressures, transient rashness, and proclivity for risk, to name a few—not only diminish a juvenile's culpability but also enhance the prospect of reform as the years go by and neurological development occurs. This line of Supreme Court cases is therefore critical to any juvenile accused of committing a crime.

Importantly, though, the consensus in the scientific community today is that these diminished-culpability concepts also apply to those who are later in their adolescence and into their mid-twenties. On February 5, 2018, the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates recognized this significant consensus in the scientific community, passing a resolution calling on jurisdictions that still have capital punishment to prohibit its imposition against those who were 21 years of age or younger at the time of the offense. The ABA’s resolution notes that while neuroscience had played no part in Supreme Court decisions before 2000, "large-scale advances in the understanding of the human brain, have led to the current medical recognition that . . . profound neurodevelopmental growth continues even into a person’s mid to late twenties."

The ABA’s resolution provides a treasure trove of resources for anyone representing a youthful client. And so, too, does the August 2017 Order issued by Fayette County Circuit Judge Ernesto Scorsone declaring Kentucky’s death penalty statute unconstitutional on these grounds. (*Note: Judge Scorsone’s Order is currently percolating through Kentucky’s appellate courts.)

Youth matters; science and social science tells us so, as does common sense. 

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