Brain Development, Social Context and Justice Policy

54 Pages Posted: 6 Feb 2018

See all articles by Elizabeth S. Scott

Elizabeth S. Scott

Columbia University - Law School

Natasha Duell

Temple University

Laurence Steinberg

Temple University - Department of Psychology

Date Written: January 8, 2018


Justice policy reform in the past decade has been driven by research evidence indicating that brain development is ongoing through adolescence, and that neurological and psychological immaturity likely contributes in important ways to teenagers’ involvement in crime. But despite the power of this trend, skeptics point out that many (perhaps most) adolescents do not engage in serious criminal activity; on this basis, critics argue that normative biological and psychological factors associated with adolescence are unlikely to play the important role in juvenile offending that is posited by supporters of the reform trend. This Article explains that features associated with biological and psychological immaturity alone do not lead teenagers to engage in illegal conduct. Instead the decision to offend, like much behavior in adolescence, is the product of dynamic interaction between the still-maturing individual and her social context. The Article probes the mechanisms through which particular tendencies and traits linked to adolescent brain development interact with environmental influences to encourage antisocial or prosocial behavior.

Brain development in adolescence is associated with reward-seeking behavior and limited future orientation. Further, as compared to adults, adolescents are particularly sensitive to external stimuli (particularly peers), easily aroused emotionally, and less able to regulate strong emotions. The Article shows how these tendencies may be manifested in different teenagers in different ways, depending on many factors in the social context. By analyzing this intricate relationship, the Article clarifies how social environment influences adolescent choices in ways that incline or deter involvement in crime and in other risky behavior. Thus a teenager who lives in a high-crime neighborhood with many antisocial peers is more likely to get involved in criminal activity than one in a neighborhood with few such peers, even though the two may not differ in their tendencies and propensities for risk-taking.

The Article’s interactive model offers powerful support for laws and policies that subject adolescent offenders to more lenient sanctions than adults receive and that tailor dispositions to juveniles’ developmental needs. Our examination confirms and illuminates the Supreme Court’s conclusion that juvenile offenders differ in important ways from adult counterparts; juveniles deserve less punishment because their offenses are driven by biological and psychological immaturity, and also because, as legal minors, they cannot extricate themselves from social contexts (neighborhoods, schools and families) that contribute- to involvement in crime. The model also confirms that correctional facilities and programs, which constitute young offenders’ social settings, can support healthy development to adulthood in individual offenders, or affect their lives in harmful ways.

Keywords: justice policy, brain development, social context, crime, criminal law

Suggested Citation

Scott, Elizabeth S. and Duell, Natasha and Steinberg, Laurence, Brain Development, Social Context and Justice Policy (January 8, 2018). Washington University Journal of Law and Policy, Forthcoming, Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 14-578, Available at SSRN:

Elizabeth S. Scott (Contact Author)

Columbia University - Law School ( email )

435 West 116th Street
New York, NY 10025
United States
(212) 854-9758 (Phone)
(212) 854-7946 (Fax)

Natasha Duell

Temple University ( email )

Philadelphia, PA 19122
United States

Laurence Steinberg

Temple University - Department of Psychology ( email )

Weiss Hall
1701 N. 13th St.
Philadelphia, PA 19122
United States

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