Individuals age out of crime, making long sentences unjustified.
Extensive experience over decades, as well as biological research on the brain and human behavior, shows that the vast majority of individuals mature out of a tendency to break laws—including the commission of violent crimes—by the time they reach middle age.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, homicide and drug-arrest rates peak at age 19, while arrest rates for forcible rape begin tapering off at 18. Likewise, research by criminologist Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon and colleagues found that for the eight serious crimes closely tracked by the FBI — murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft, arson and car theft — the perpetrators’ “active periods” typically last no more than five to 10 years, as measured by arrests.
Neuroscience shows that young brains are more crime-prone
Criminal careers are short for a number of reasons. Neuroscience suggests that the parts of the brain that regulate risk and reward are not fully developed until age 25, after which lawbreaking drops off. Youths younger than this age are vulnerable to psychosocial and emotional influences that foster immature judgment and bad choices.
Even late teens tend to lack what is called “future orientation.” They are more likely to focus on the here-and-now and are less likely to think about the long-term consequences of their choices or actions. And when they do, they are inclined to assign less weight to future consequences than to immediate risks and benefits. Between mid-adolescence and early adulthood, individuals become more future oriented.
Substantial research also demonstrates that teens are far more responsive to peer influence than are adults. Some research suggests that youths who engage in certain types of antisocial behavior enjoy higher status among their peers as a consequence, perhaps because they appear to be independent of adult authority. Thus, they are more likely to alter their behavior in response to peer pressure, especially in group situations.
Another psychosocial factor contributes to immature judgment: youths are both less likely to perceive risks and less risk-averse than adults. Thus, it is not surprising that they may be drawn to activities like speeding, unsafe sex, excessive drinking and committing crimes. In paper-and-pencil tests, youths are capable of perceiving risks almost as well as adults. In the real world, however, the various dimensions of psychosocial immaturity interact to encourage risky choices. Thus, youths who might are aware of the risks of stealing a car when presented with a hypothetical case in a psychology lab may simply never consider them when on the street with their friends.
Psychologists refer to the outcome of weighing risks and rewards as the “risk-reward ratio.” The higher the ratio, the less likely an individual is to engage in the behavior in question. Studies suggest that when calculating the risk-reward ratio, youths discount risks and calculate rewards differently from adults. They tend to focus more on potential gains than do adults. Indeed, what adults may view as a risk—fast driving, for example—teens often see as a reward. They attach different value to the rewards that risk-taking provides.
Teens and adults also differ in their ability to control impulsive behavior. Research shows that teens are subject to more rapid and extreme mood swings, both positive and negative, than are adults. Although the connection between moodiness and impulsivity is not clear, it is likely that extreme levels of emotional arousal, either anger or elation, are associated with difficulties in self-control.
Why is all this the case? Recent studies of brain development show that the frontal lobes undergo important structural change during the adolescent and teen years, especially in the prefrontal cortex. This region is central to what psychologists call “executive function”— advanced thinking processes used in planning ahead, regulating emotions, controlling impulses, and weighing the costs and benefits of decisions before acting.
Incarceration harms development
Incarceration also produces crime. Inmates learn new ways to break the law from fellow inmates. In addition, prison erodes physical and mental health, often rendering incarcerated people less able to be productive when they are released. A record of incarceration limits one’s eligibility to qualify for higher education and financial aid, participate in military service, find gainful employment and obtain housing.
According to studies by the U.S. Justice Department, youth in adult facilities are twice as likely to be beaten by staff, 50% more likely to be attacked with a weapon, and 8 times more likely to commit suicide than minors housed in juvenile facilities.
Likewise, sentences that outlast an individual’s desire or ability to break the law is a drain on taxpayers with little upside in protecting public safety. It also stresses the fabric that holds many families together, contributing to depression, loss of income (not only due to incarcerated breadwinners, but also to the cost required to visit, call and email imprisoned loved ones) and traumatized children.
Yet, between 1981 and 2010, the average time served for homicide and non-negligent manslaughter increased threefold, to almost 17 years from five years. The body of law, however, is slowly moving in the other direction: Three times in the past seven years, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that imposing harsh criminal sentences on juvenile offenders violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. Most recently, Miller v. Alabama (2012) prohibited the mandatory imposition of a life sentence without parole on a juvenile convicted of homicide.
Another, even broader reform, has been suggested by the Sentencing Project. The organization makes the case for a 20-year cap on prison terms, with an option for parole boards or judges to add more time if necessary to protect the public. Such a policy would also bring the United States more in line with other industrialized nations.