The adult criminal justice system is often charged with determining the appropriate response to young children who have done bad things. However, these young child offenders are often also victims of abuse, pre-natal drug exposure and neglect. Trauma may change the brain's response to stressful situations and alter the child's ability to control unwanted behaviors. Courts must weigh these circumstances when considering whether the child should be charged as an adult.
Boys Town researchers are working to understand typical brain development as well as how this may be altered by stress using behavioral assessment tools and functional neuroimaging. In addition, for more than 100 years, Boys Town has been helping at risk youth and their families to change outcomes for the better. This combined experience puts us in an ideal position to provide judges with information relevant to their decisions about what to do with kids who end up in their courtrooms.
In partnership with the National Courts and Science Institute, Boys Town recently hosted a Neuroscience and the Law Workshop. Led by James Blair, Ph.D., Susan and George Haddix Endowed Chair for Neurobehavioral Research at Boys Town National Research Hospital, the judges were given an overview of current science on brain development and childhood trauma. In addition, judges and Boys Town staff held round table discussions covering case examples and how current knowledge may be applicable to judicial decision making. The judges were given a tour of facilities and technologies they may hear about in cases, and what those technologies can and cannot tell us about developing brains and mental health.
Advocating for youth, including those who end up in the criminal justice system but might be better served by therapy and intervention, is part of Boys Town's mission to help at risk youth. We appreciate the participation of the judges and hope that this meeting will be a model for future workshops as new discoveries are made.