Juvenile offenses: Changes in the teen brain often cause poor decisions

Police in Washington State recently arrested a teenager suspected of setting multiple fires in the Spokane Valley area, according to New York Daily News. The teenager and his family had just moved, and the teenager was struggling to adjust, which may have contributed to his alleged juvenile offenses. In court documents, the teenager reportedly cited the absence of friends and his dislike for the area as reasons for starting the fires.

While this case may seem unusual, it's not uncommon for teenagers to make decisions that appear impulsive, irrational or inappropriate to others. These decisions are often written off as products of inexperience or simple indifference, but in reality, teenagers may be inclined to make these mistakes because of neurological factors that are beyond their control.

Understanding the teenage brain

Teenagers act markedly different from adults because their brains are at a different developmental stage, according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. During adolescence, parts of the brain that play crucial roles in rational decision-making are still developing.

The frontal cortex is one of these areas. This region of the brain regulates higher cognitive functions, such as impulse control, judgment and reasoning. Research shows that when adolescents make decisions, they often rely on the amygdala more than the frontal cortex. The amygdala controls processing of instinctive emotions, from fear to anger, and it finishes developing much earlier than the frontal cortex.

This pattern of brain development can have wide-ranging impacts on a typical teenager's behavior. Teens are more likely to take risks, act impetuously and misunderstand others. At the same time, they are less likely to think through the potential consequences of their actions beforehand. Unfortunately, this means teenagers may be more prone to making reckless or inappropriate decisions, which may occasionally cross into criminal activity.

Consequences of juvenile offenses

In Washington, state law encourages the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders, rather than harsh punishment, according to KXLY News. However, in some cases, juveniles may face declination to adult court, along with adult criminal penalties if convicted. The Spokane Valley teenager could potentially be charged as an adult, due to the following factors:

  • Two of the fires the teenager allegedly set affected high-value homes that were still being built, which constitutes first-degree arson.
  • First-degree arson is one of the crimes that can result in a teenager being tried as an adult.
  • For the teen to be tried in adult court, the arsons would have to be violent, planned in advance and criminally sophisticated.

If the teenager is ultimately tried as an adult, the consequences could be significant. Under state law, first-degree arson is a Class A felony. This type of felony carries a potential maximum sentence of lifelong imprisonment, a $50,000 fine or imprisonment along with the fine. However, if the arsons are only considered property crimes, the teenager may be tried as a juvenile.

Addressing charges against juveniles

The outcomes of criminal charges against juveniles are often impactful and even life changing. Anyone facing charges for juvenile offenses should seek the assistance of an attorney who understands the juvenile justice system and can secure the most favorable possible outcome.