At 17, Eric Alexander agreed to serve as a lookout for a friend trying to steal beer from a convenience store. His friend fatally shot the store clerk and ran. Alexander, charged with first-degree murder and aggravated robbery, faced a life sentence without parole.
He says he had agreed to participate in the crime without thinking it through—something common for teenagers and young adults, whose brains are still developing, say experts who participated in NCSL’s Youth and Young Adult Policy Summit in Denver earlier this month.
“No child should ever be told that he or she should die in prison for something they did with an undeveloped brain,” says Alexander, now 45. “And we’re the only nation that does it.”
What happens with brain development in adolescence is just as important as what happens in early childhood, says Lisa Hamilton, president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which sponsored the daylong summit with four NCSL programs. “It’s a window that can take many young people off track—and also a moment to move things in a positive direction.”
No child should ever be told that he or she should die in prison for something they did with an undeveloped brain. —Eric Alexander, Campaign for Fair Sentencing for Youth
Psychologist Jennifer Woolard, who heads the Center for Research on Adolescence, Women and the Law at Georgetown University, says ongoing brain development has an outsize impact on what might appear to be willful behavior in teens and young adults.
“Adolescents as a group are not fully developed and will change over time, and their character is not fully developed,” she says. “They are less able to control impulses, less able to resist pressure from peers, less likely to think ahead, more driven by the thrill of rewards.”
Woolard says the brain at this age is pruning the neurons it builds prolifically in the first three years of life, becoming more specialized and forming systems that deeply affect how adolescents operate.
She describes this age as going from a dirt road to a superhighway without a fully functioning braking system or a skilled driver in place.
Minors in the Justice System
“Adolescents are in the most complicated position of any individual in the justice system,” Woolard says. “They are a defendant, they have rights, decisions only they can make, attorneys and parents can’t make them. They are also a legally dependent child. But they are also an adolescent. They have cognitive and psychosocial capacities developing in them that affect the decisions they make.”
Alexander had never been involved in criminal activity, but like more than 80% of juveniles serving life sentences, he witnessed violence in his home: His father beat his mother and stalked the family for years after she left him.
Alexander pleaded guilty because otherwise he faced a life sentence without parole. He served 15 years before being granted parole. He’s now a senior advocate at the Campaign for Fair Sentencing for Youth, which works to ensure juveniles don’t wind up in prison for the rest of their lives and helps people who had extreme sentences as adolescents reenter society after prison. Alexander says 23 states and the District of Columbia have banned life without parole for young offenders, and seven states currently have no juveniles serving life without parole.
Preston Shipp was a prosecutor in the Tennessee attorney general’s office when he began teaching college classes in prisons. He got to know people beyond their crimes.
“(It was) getting harder and harder for me to sit in judgment on these people because I hear the full context in which the crime was committed, and there’s always trauma,” Shipp says, noting how privileged he had been to grow up in a loving family that could support his goals in life.
“They all were filled with promise, but we had exchanged promise for endless punishment,” he says. “All of a sudden, I couldn’t do my job anymore.” Shipp is now senior policy counsel for the fair sentencing group.
In other areas of the law, he says, we treat adolescents like kids: “They can’t get married, can’t sign a contract, we don’t let them buy tobacco—but we give them life without parole.”
Kelley Griffin is a writer and editor at NCSL.