The Coloradoan

July 21, 2004


By Julie Baxter

Remember those misspent days of your youth?

When you were invincible, intelligent and incapable of making a bad decision?

Now, can you remember just how vulnerable, foolish and gifted you were at making rotten choices?

We all did things in our younger days we aren’t proud of, things we regret, things that after the heat of the moment passed, we would have done much differently. Turns out there’s good cause for that; our brains just weren’t ready for heavy thinking.

A recent study by government researchers revealed that the last areas of the brain to mature are those faced with weightier tasks such as reasoning and problem solving. Those functions don’t solidify until sometime between 18 and 21.

So for all those times you look back and wonder “What was I thinking?” the answer is you weren’t, at least not at the level to which you’ve become accustomed.

Dr. Mark Wellek, a Phoenix psychiatrist and past-president of the American Society of Adolescent Psychiatry, explained it this way:

The amygdala — the central part of the brain that sends out impulses in reaction to the environment and perceived threats — is very active in 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds. Meanwhile, the prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain just behind your eyes and forehead that makes value judgements, plans ahead and looks at the rightness and wrongness of things — is just starting to develop.

Most of us can recall embarrassing, reckless or crazy stories. But a good number of us don’t have a criminal record because of them. Imagine if you faced the loss of a chance to look back with regret and remorse.

Since 1976, 22 young people have lost that chance. That’s how many juveniles have been executed in the United States since the death penalty was reinstated. (Texas, by the way, is responsible for 13 of those executions, according to “The Juvenile Death Penalty: Death Sentences and Executions for Juvenile Crimes” by Victor Streib, a law professor at Ohio Northern University and considered by some the preeminent expert on the subject.)

Another 72 await execution in 19 states (thankfully, Colorado is not among them), according to Streib’s study.

The United States, Wellek said, is the last nation in the world that executes juveniles.

The U.S. Supreme Court is faced with stopping the practice as it hears the case of Christopher Simmons. Simmons, now 27, was sentenced to death in Missouri for a murder he committed at 17. The state Supreme Court overturned the sentence, calling the execution of juveniles cruel and unusual punishment. The state has appealed, and now the nation’s top judges will take their turn at sorting out whether young killers should die for their crimes.

Wellek said it is not that 16- or 17-year-olds don’t know the difference between right and wrong. Instead, the issue, he said, is how their developing brains react in stressful situations and the environmental support they receive to keep those reactions in check.

“The part of the brain that knows right from wrong is not operating (when youths are) under duress,” said Wellek, who helped write the brief that landed before the Supreme Court.

Young people, especially males, who end up on death row are struggling with impulse control like any other teenager. But unlike those others, they have been beaten or abused, are depressed or suicidal, and don’t have the resources of your average teen, Wellek said. There are no friends to pull them away from a fight or drive their cars home when they drink too much, no parents to talk to, Wellek said. In short, there is no support network to keep them from making a choice they will regret forever.

Juvenile killers are killers, but they’re still children who have much living and learning to do.

It seems an injustice to rob them of a chance at redemption.


The Coloradoan (Fort Collins, Colorado)