Human brain in x-ray view – Getty Images stock photo
The latest studies in neuroscience suggest that the frontal lobe of the human brain doesn’t fully develop until the age of 25. However, in 2022, Kate Mills, a neuroscientist, said, “We’re still not there with the research to say the brain is mature at 25 because we don’t have a good indication of what maturity even looks like.”
Neuroscientists define maturity as the point when changes in the brain level off. That means neuromaturation is different from maturation in emotional, social, and moral development. So far, there is little empirical evidence that links neurodevelopment and adolescent real-world behavior.
The legal system is struggling with the implications of these frontal lobe studies. Since law is not science, lawyers and policymakers use frontal lobe studies for their persuasive power, not for their scientific precision.
For example, a juvenile can be charged as an adult based on the severity of the crime. Lawyers representing juveniles charged as adults use frontal lobe studies as evidence as to why punishing a child as if he or she is an adult is tantamount to child abuse. When trying to convince the legal system not to charge a child as an adult, the frontal lobe studies are persuasive despite their lack of precision.
But there are other times when frontal lobe studies don’t apply.
Recently, a group of Democratic Delegates in Maryland proposed House Bill 1180—the Youth Accountability and Safety Act. This bill will prohibit anyone under the age of 25 from being charged with felony murder. The supporters of the bill insist that the brain is not fully developed until 25 years old and “those that commit heinous crimes like felony murder may not have intended to do so.”
At first glance, House Bill 1180 sounds like radical soft on crime legislation until closer attention is paid to what the Democratic delegates are trying to prevent.
According to the legal database Justia, the felony murder rule is a rule that allows a defendant to be charged with first-degree murder for a killing that occurs during a dangerous felony, even if the defendant is not the killer.
For instance, a getaway driver’s partner fires a warning shot to scare the cashier during a robbery, but the bullet strikes and kills a customer that was hiding in the aisle. The shooting wasn’t premeditated, nor did the shooter intend to kill anyone, but under the felony murder rule, the getaway driver and the robber are charged with first-degree murder.
The Democratic supporters of House Bill 1180 are opposed to the fact that the felony murder rule makes an exception to the normal rules of murder.
Justia states, “Normally, a defendant can be convicted of murder only if a prosecutor shows that the defendant acted with the intent to kill or with a reckless indifference to human life. Under the felony murder rule, however, a defendant can be convicted of murder even if the defendant did not act with intent or with reckless indifference. The prosecution must show only that the defendant participated in a felony where fatalities occurred.”
This exception was designed to be a deterrent.
Justia explains, “Certain crimes are so dangerous that society wants to deter individuals from engaging in them altogether. Thus, when a person participates in an inherently dangerous crime, he or she may be held responsible for the fatal consequences of that crime, even if someone else caused the actual death.”
The Democratic supporters of House Bill 1180 are not being soft on crime by making every effort to point out that felony murder’s exception to the normal rules of murder doesn’t deter felony crimes. Nor is it being soft on crime to suggest that those responsible for killing someone while committing a felony can still be charged with murder, just not in the first degree.
The problem is that frontal lobe studies don’t explain why 18- to 24-year-olds shouldn’t be held responsible if charged with felony murder. The age of criminal responsibility varies state by state but can be rounded to 10 years old. (Many experts believe 10 is too young and the age should be raised to 12.) The legal system set this age based on long-standing psychological studies showing that children develop a moral sense around age 7 and understand the difference between right and wrong following puberty.
In this matter of felony murder, when it comes to individuals 18 to 24 years old, the frontal lobe studies aren’t persuasive enough to spare them as if they were still juveniles.