A variety of environmental factors that lead minors to commit crimes

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One evening, Cyntoia Brown, a 16-year-old young woman, was solicited for sex as a victim of human trafficking. During this unfathomable experience, Cyntoia felt fearful that her abuser was going to killer her, so she shot him, which resulted in his death. She was tried as an adult and convicted to life in prison. Cyntoia, now 31 years of age, was granted clemency for her crime because the court was able to recognize their error in charging a juvenile as an adult. Though this was consolation for Cyntoia, there are many other juveniles, just like she was, currently staring down the barrel of a harsh sentence. Unfortunately, in most states it is completely legal and sometimes encouraged, to use a young criminal as an example, through touch sentencing, to ward off future young criminals. This truth is unjust and counterproductive to the original intent of the criminal justice system, that is, to rehabilitate criminals. While illegal actions of a minor should be met with consequences, ruthless sentencing of a minor abandons their right to healthy growth as an individual. Court systems that convict children as adults fail to consider the complex nature of child development, neglect the factors that lead a child to commit a heinous act and cause ineffective rehabilitation for juveniles.

To begin with, it is blatantly obvious and scientifically proven that children do not have the same level of cognitive development as adults. One way to consider this difference, is by analyzing how children process and manage emotions. It is typical of a child to participate in behaviors that are against their best interest, especially when triggered by negative emotions. This is apparent when a child opts to lash out, perhaps at peers or authority figures, when enraged or sad. The child may use violence, inappropriate language, and physical self-harm to express these emotions. Furthermore, children lack the level of cognitive development that strengthens discernment when making decisions. This setback attributes to their inability to completely understand and process to what extent their actions may cause consequences. This phenomenon is best explained by studies of brain development that prove, in adolescents, “the limbic system (site of fear and anxiety) matures before regions where planning, emotional regulation, and impulse control occur” (Berger, 2016). In other words, if a juvenile decides to use drugs, join a gang, steal, or engage in any other criminal activity, it is because the instinctive nature of their impulsivity trumps the desire to use logic and reasoning in their brain.

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On the contrary, adults have brains that are fully evolved. Unlike children, adults have developed emotional maturity. When an adult is triggered by negative emotions, they usually look for solutions that require them to assess a situation, through a logical lens, before involving emotions. In psychology, adults are considered postformal thinkers, who can conceive of multiple logics, choices and perceptions (Berger, 2016). Also, adults are completely capable of using critical thinking to weigh actions and consequences. This is evident when an adult chooses not to act on impulse to fulfill a morally inept desire but instead consider the negative outcomes that they could endure as a result.

In addition to cognitive disadvantages, there are a variety of environmental factors that lead minors to commit crimes. For example, some children come from unhealthy home environments that influence their behavior. Imagine a 16-year-old boy growing up in a home that is riddled with drug and alcohol abuse by his parents. Then he decides to use drugs and drink alcohol underage. This split decision to mimic the behavioral norms he is surrounded by results in erratic behavior that leads him to commit a murder. The negligence of his parents is a direct cause of the finality of this crime. Demonstrated in the given scenario, maltreatment of a child doubles the probability of them engaging in many types of crime. (Currie & Tekin, 2006). Sociologist use the Social Learning Theory to illustrate this shift in behavior. The theory expresses that children develop patterns of violent or delinquent behavior through imitation (Currie & Tekin, 2006).

Environmental hardships associated with living in low income communities also triggers criminal acts of minors. For instance, youth in poverty have limited resources which can result in poor mental health conditions that make them more prone to engage in risky behaviors that they may not otherwise be involved in. Living amid food deserts and having scarce financial opportunities creates an environment for youth that does not breed hope for their future, so they have no regard for the law because in their mind their life is worthless. Sometimes youth take on the financial responsibilities of their immediate family due to there not being enough income by their parents. Crime rates are higher in these communities because police presence is more prominent and often target youth of color. Being surrounded by misfortune is hardly conducive to youth having the desire to abide by laws created by policy makers who do not invest in their community.

Indeed, a child that is developing in an environment, where they have been victimized by sexual abuse, will adopt mental challenges that impact their actions. It is evident from neuropsychiatric research that sexual assault causes trauma that results in a host of diagnoses that include, but are not limited to, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, conduct disorder and oppositional defiant disorder (Goodyear-Brown 2012). In addition, neurobiological studies support that there are sensors in the brain that are stimulated when a traumatic event, such as sexual assault occurs, that can be retriggered when a previously identified or unknown potential threat emerge. The stimulation takes place in the region of the brain that controls a person’s consciousness of their actions (Goodyear-Brown 2012). A simple change in brain chemistry associated with a threat will compromise a child’s ability to produce a rational response. This response can come in the form of violent crime, as in the case of Cyntoia Brown.

Moreover, there are several reason why convicting juveniles as adults is ineffective to rehabilitation efforts. One reason is that incarcerating juveniles in adult prisons have a negative impact on their mental health and development. Juveniles often have mental health issues that are not addressed prior to incarceration. Putting juveniles in adult prisons only heightens their chances of becoming increasingly ill. As a result, their emotional regulation is flawed, and they resort to extreme actions to avoid suffering. Studies show that youth are 36 times more likely to commit suicide in adult prisons than juvenile facilities (Human Impact Partners, 2017). Also, juveniles struggle to healthily develop and maintain an identity while incarcerated. Therefore, they derive a sense of identity from the adult inmates they observe. This way of identity development is especially dangerous because it creates a false sense of self that can perpetuate harmful behaviors and undesirable character traits like that of the, observed, incarcerated adults. The 5 psychosocial tasks that are important for a developing adolescent, identity development, autonomy development, the capacity for intimacy, sexuality, and focus on achievement (Woodlard, Odgers, Lanza-Kaduce, Daglis, 2005), are all cryptic in nature to juveniles identifying who they are, holistically, apart from the negative influences they have in correctional facilities.

Along with the mental and developmental impacts of the adult prison system, juveniles have a higher risk of being subjected to violence and abuse. While violent incidents are common in juvenile facilities, “youth in adult correctional facilities are twice as likely to be beaten by staff and 50 percent more likely to be attacked by weapon than youth in juvenile facilities” (Human Impact Partners, 2017). Not only do youth in adult prisons face the threat of violent attacks, they also are vulnerable to sexual abuse. A report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2005 and 2006, shows that youth occupied 1 percent of adult jail inmates, but they accounted for 21 percent of victims of inmate-on-inmate sexual violence (Castro, Muhammad & Arthur, 2014). Youth are obviously targeted by adult predators in the adult prison systems but, when analyzed further, it is evident that the juveniles identifying as part of the LGBTQ community are especially preyed upon. A study, conducted in 2007, at six California male prisons, highlighted that inmates identifying as LGBTQ were reporting being sexually assaulted at a rate that was 15 times higher than the overall population (Justice Detention International, 2009).

As a final point for analyses, youth have insufficient resources in adult prisons that would aid in their future success and rehabilitation. For example, adult facilities have limit educational, mental health, and physical health programs that are tailored to the needs of youth. It is apparent, through the dramatically low teacher-to-inmate ratio and physical-space restrictions of classrooms in adult facilities, that juveniles are not receiving the quality of education required to have positive academic advancements (Wood, 2012). In addition, adolescents are still in stages of psychological development and have varying mental treatment needs that adult facilities are ill equipped to manage. The inadequate treatment juveniles receive is exceptionally alarming because up to 83 percent of incarcerated juveniles meet criteria for two or more mental disorders (Woodlard, Odgers, Lanza-Kaduce, Daglis, 2005). Further, incarcerated individuals have a high risk for mortality, chronic health condition and communicable disease that are induced by prison conditions like, overcrowding, barriers to accessing healthcare, and isolation (Human Impact Partners, 2017). The resources provided to juveniles by correctional facilities, to ameliorate the illnesses previously mentioned are lackluster to say the least, since “many states have non-medical personnel performing screening task” (Woodlard, Odgers, Lanza-Kaduce, Daglis, 2005).

Perhaps a more efficient way to rehabilitate minors that commit heinous crimes, is not to charge them as adults but instead, provide them with the adequate resources to be a productive member of society after they serve a juvenile sentence. Legislation for sentencing youth should not neglect the variety of influences that impact the outcome of child crime. It should be stressed that children do not have the mental capabilities of adults. Given this, it is simple to digest how children and adolescents make decisions based on impulse rather than logic and reasoning. Ultimately, if the development of a child’s mind is not at the same neurological level of an adult, they should not be held to the same legal standard in any case. The chief influencer of youth behavior is the environments they are exposed to, some of which produce criminal action among youth that call for mental and behavioral reconstruction. Convicting minors as adults negatively affects their ability to rehabilitate, due to inadequate resources for personal development in adult correctional facilities. Consequently, the long-term effect of the adult prison system on youth is not rehabilitation, as intended, but increased juvenile recidivism – the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend. To conclude with a statement from a person directly affected by the harsh realities discussed, Phillip, who was charged as an adult at age 16 eloquently asserts that, “If the criminal justice system is not doing what it allegedly is supposed to do which is to rehabilitate and repair a person, then their action of stripping a person of their humanity is criminal in itself”.

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A variety of environmental factors that lead minors to commit crimes. (2022, Aug 25). Retrieved from


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