“Children are different from adults,” Slater says, and she explains what that means, biologically and physiologically speaking. The limbic system, the part of the brain that signals the body to respond to stimuli—like “Avoid! Investigate! Eat! Fight! Flirt!”—becomes overly sensitive during puberty. This makes teenagers “more emotional and more interested in having new and intense experiences.”
If adolescents are biologically and physiologically different from adults, then it stands to reason that they should not be treated as one in a court of law. Slater’s argument that trying a child as an adult is unethical is supported by the scientific consensus that adolescents and adults are fundamentally different.
Furthermore, “the brain is busily lining important neural pathways with a fatty sheath called myelin,” which helps to carry signals more quickly through the brain. The part of the brain responsible for “reason, planning, and deliberation,” known as the prefrontal cortex, is last to be myelinated. “So,” Slater says, “while teenage emotions have gone into hyperdrive, reason and logic are still obeying the speed limit.”
Because the adolescent brain is not fully developed, Slater contends, they cannot be expected to process information in quite same way as an adult. Instead, juveniles are driven by emotion instead of reason, and their standard of punishment should reflect this.
A teenager’s active limbic system and underdeveloped prefrontal cortex combine to create what is known as “hot cognition,” making judgement “fairly awful,” especially during intense or exciting circumstances. This decision making becomes worse when a teenager is around friends, and according to experts, “even the brightest, best-meaning teenager doesn’t tend to think much beyond the moment, especially when they’re with their friends.” Generally, teenagers begin to make better decisions around their early twenties, at the time criminologists refer to as the “age-crime curve.”
Richard’s actions during his attack on Sasha clearly reflect a youth under the influence of “hot cognition.” The presence of Lloyd and Jamal definitely influences his behavior, and Richard certainly doesn’t think beyond the moment of flicking the lighter and having a laugh at Sasha’s expense. Richard’s decision to target and bully Sasha is “fairly awful,” but he has very little insight into the consequences of his actions.
Of course, some kids are just bad, or “irredeemably depraved,” but this is not evident until after the “age-crime curve.” Slater points out that most of the people who support hate-crime legislation are “liberals,” the very same people who are against mass incarceration. Still, “the remedy here is imprisonment, and prisons are the ultimate incubators of antisocial attitudes.”
In Richard’s case, he will not hit the “age-crime curve” for at least another five years, and Slater implies that it is unethical and cruel to treat him as if he is “irredeemably depraved” before this time. Plus, this punishment in itself is likely to turn Richard into a criminal, defeating the purpose of prison as a means of rehabilitation.