Editor’s note: This article was updated Dec. 22, 2023, to add clarity to interviewee responses.
Dr. Elizabeth Cauffman, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Irvine, is an expert on adolescent brain development and its implications for how children’s cases are handled in the nation’s legal system. As a researcher, she took part in two seminal studies conducted over the past 20 years: Pathways to Desistance, which focused on teens with serious legal system involvement and their progression out of antisocial behavior, and Crossroads, which is examining the long-term effects of formal court involvement as opposed to informal processing of young people with first-time mid-level offenses. Both projects are longitudinal studies with data from multiple sites that have provided essential insights into the most effective ways in which policymakers can intervene to help young people who engage in delinquent behavior.
Earlier this year, Cauffman—who has a doctorate in developmental psychology—discussed her research on effective alternatives to formal court involvement for children and teens.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: As children grow, how does their brain development impact risk-taking and decision making?
A: At roughly 16, young people can think hypothetically, process information, and reason abstractly, much like adults. But emotionally, young people lag. Their impulse control, long-term thinking, and ability to resist peer influence is not at par with adults until well into their 20s.
If you’re a parent, you may recognize how this gap between cognitive and emotional development plays out. When you ask your kid, “Why did you do that?” the first thing a kid’s going to say is, “I don’t know.” And they’re not lying to you. They knew they weren’t supposed to do something, but they did it anyway. And that’s because as emotional development catches up to the cognitive, kids often know the difference between right and wrong—yet they still engage in behavior that they probably should avoid.
Q: What does it mean to respond in a developmentally appropriate way to mid- and lower-level risk-taking that lands kids in court?
A: Kids need to be held accountable for their behavior. The question is, how to hold them accountable in a way that gets to the outcomes that we as a society want. Over nine years, the Crossroads study I worked on followed 1,200 boys arrested between ages 13 and 17 for a first-time, mid-level offense, such as burglary or assault. The study looked at differences in outcomes between young people who were formally processed—meaning they went before a judge and got a formal sanction such as probation or incarceration—and those who were diverted from courts. Diversion allows youth justice practitioners to offer young people informal pathways out of the system, with consequences such as writing an apology letter, doing community service, or participating in counseling or treatment for substance use.
The Crossroads study found that, even controlling for demographic factors and offense level, young people who were diverted had better outcomes than those who were formally processed. That included higher rates of high school graduation and more optimism about their lives. And, perhaps most importantly, they were less likely to be arrested and incarcerated for more serious offenses later on, improving public safety and leading to more positive and productive life trajectories.
Q: What about young people convicted of serious offenses? What does research say about them?
A: Many people see a very serious type of crime and believe that transferring kids to the adult criminal court system is the right approach. But the research doesn’t bear that out.
For example, the Pathways to Desistance study, on which I also worked, followed 1,300 boys aged 14 to 17 for seven years. Unlike with the Crossroads study, the teenagers in the Pathways to Desistance study committed the most serious offenses, crimes such as aggravated assault, robbery, and even murder. Yet we found that the majority stopped committing offenses by age 25, showing that most young people are not on a path to adult crime.
The Pathways study and previous research have also been able to compare the outcomes of young people in similar circumstances who receive different punishments. In general, teenagers who are removed from home or transferred to the adult system have worse outcomes, including increased suicide and victimization while incarcerated, and more serious new offenses after release than those who are diverted. Taken together, the research shows that the most punitive responses to young people’s behavior generally don’t work, even for those that have committed serious crimes.
Q: How might developmentally sound responses to young people’s behaviors increase fairness and address inequity?
A: Disparities between how young people of different backgrounds are treated often increase as they move through the process, from policing and intake to adjudication, sentencing, and incarceration. As researchers and practitioners examine ways to enhance developmentally appropriate responses, we should pay attention to processes that enable these disparities, and work to address the racial discrimination and bias that persist within our systems.
Watch this video for more of Cauffman’s expert insights on adolescent brain development and youth justice: