Elizabeth Cauffman on Juvenile Justice – UC Irvine

>>My name is Elizabeth Cauffman. I’m in the
psychology and social behavior department in the School of Social Ecology. The main
focus of my research is on adolescent development: How kids change; how they develop over time.
And that really informs or provides the court with a foundation for better understanding
for how to treat kids within the system. So a lot of my work is on when should kids should
be tried as adults? Are they competent to stand trial? What are the right responses
the justice system should have to kids during this developmental time period? So a lot of
my research centers on: If adolescents are so smart, why do they do such stupid things?
A lot of kids end up making very immature decisions, and better trying to understand
what that disconnect is. So recent advances in neuroscience have shown that the brain
is continuing to develop up until the age of 25. And that’s particularly in the area
of the pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for impulse control, planning, future orientation.
Given that this is the last part of the brain to develop, it’s not surprising that kids
are more impulsive, don’t think through their actions. And this is important because in
the research we’ve been doing, we’ve found that kids are much more responsive to rewards
than they are to punishments. For instance, we’ve been following kids for the past seven
years. These are serious adolescent offenders. These are offenders who committed very heinous
crimes. And a lot of people think that if you committed a serious crime, you must be
a serious offender and that your life is over. This is a person who cannot be rehabilitated.
And what we wanted to do was look at what predicts who stops offending, who desists
from criminal activity. A lot of people looked at the predictors of what gets kids into crime.
Very few people look at what gets kids out of crime. One of the things we know from our
findings is that as kids mature, the more likely they are to stop offending. The most
exciting way that I’ve seen my research impact policy is having the Supreme Court take up
the issue of the death penalty for juvenile offenders. It’s hard to believe that the United
States is one of the last countries to still execute their children. So my research not
only impacted the abolishment of the juvenile death penalty, but it also was involved in
the recent 2010 abolishment of life without the possibility of parole for non-homocide
cases for juvenile offenders. And to know that my research had an impact on the policies
of this country is very exciting. We’re starting a new study called “Crossroads.” They were
interested in looking into whether kids were formally processed. That is, they go through
the regular court system and maybe are incarcerated, versus kids who are informally processed,
that is, diverted, given maybe community service or some community-based response. So we’re
going to look as they get older, what the educational, mental health, emotional, as
well as economic impact of all these factors are on kids who are formally punished or informally
processed through the system. Because what you do to a kid at this age has a long-term
impact on what they’re going to do as an adult. So it’s really important to know what the
system does, so that we can look long term at how they’re going to behave as an adult.
And I think that’s one of the goals of research is once we got to understand how kids are
changing and what their needs are, can we design a system that’s more developmentally
appropriate to meet those needs?

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