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When the accused is just 18: How brain science complicates 'adult' criminal justice

Payton Gendron is led into the courtroom for a hearing at Erie County Court, in Buffalo, N.Y. on May 19.
Matt Rourke
Payton Gendron, the accused Tops shooter, is led into a Buffalo courtroom on May 19.

The age of the accused gunman in May’s Buffalo supermarket mass shooting has renewed conversations and debate about suitable punishment for a defendant of that age. Recent criminal justice reforms and gun control legislation take into consideration human brain development, indicating that young people may be legal adults, but not fully mature.

Less than a month after prosecutors say Payton Gendron, then 18, shot 13 people at a Buffalo supermarket, the New York State Legislature passed a package of gun control reforms, signed into law by Governor Kathy Hochul. The bills included raising the minimum age for semi-automatic weapon purchases from 18 to 21 years old.

Hochul’s predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, signed legislation ending the practice of charging 16- and 17-year-old suspects as adults. Among the arguments for such changes is the maturity of the human brain.

Research shows human brain development continues beyond the time one is considered a legal adult.

“What we know from the developmental and brain sciences is that there's continued development of the brain and brain networks, especially those that are involved in self-regulation and self-control, that extend beyond 18 years, and well into the 20s,” said BJ Casey, professor of neuroscience and behavior at Barnard College, Columbia University. “Our own work shows that 18- to 21-year-olds look more similar to young teens when they're in emotionally charged situations, with regard to their cognitive abilities, and the pattern of brain activity that we see. And you would really be hard pressed to tell the difference between an individual that was 17 versus an individual that was 19, or say even 20 in that pattern of brain activity and behavior.”

The U.S. Supreme Court took the mental and emotional development of adolescents into account in 2005, ruling in the Roper v Simmons case that it is unconstitutional to impose the death penalty for a crime committed by someone under the age of 18.

“Some states have actually based on the brain science and this understanding that the regions of our brain that that control higher order, decision making and functioning aren't, aren't yet developed. Some states have actually extended that logic and have prohibited these kinds of sentences, for example, life without parole, on people who are under 21,” said Alexandra Harrington, an Associate Professor and the director of the Criminal Justice Advocacy Clinic at the University at Buffalo School of Law.

New York State has no death penalty, and only allows life without parole for juveniles in cases of terrorism. The pending state case against Gendron will be the first in New York State to apply the terrorism statute. The death penalty is a possibility in his pending federal case.

Violent crimes involving suspects 18 or younger lead critics to question whether the criminal justice system has become too lenient. Harrington suggests while the public might seek further reforms, it needs to be careful not to overcompensate in the other direction.

“I do think it is absolutely the right thing to recognize that children are different, that their brains are still developing, and that they should not be punished in the same way as adults," she said. "We still have the ability within the law if there is a particularly egregious crime, if there are particular circumstances to try that person as an adult. But I think we need to be really careful about making that the rule for everyone.”

There is no set “magic number” at which point one reaches maturity. While one must be 21 years old to buy alcohol, tobacco and cannabis where legal, people as young as 18 may vote and enlist in the military. People as young as 16 may begin learning to drive an automobile.

“There's differences for when we give people different kinds of responsibility, whether it's driving, or drinking, or voting, or being able to be conscripted into the military. And it's also changed over time,” Harrington said. “For the vast majority of our country's history, 21 was the age of maturity and then World War Two complicated things. And now here we are, back down at 18.”

So why is it so that people under the age of 21 may be trusted with some “adult” responsibilities but not others?

“We know that 16 year olds probably could solve math problems, particularly if it wasn't a timed exam, more quickly and more accurately than perhaps we can when they have time to make decisions,” said Casey. “It's more like cold cognition. Adolescents do just fine. It's an emotionally charged situation where there may be more disinhibition. And if you have access to a gun, we may see more impulsivity and more inclination to then use that gun.”

When asked about the claim that violent video games may adversely affect an adolescent’s development, Casey suggested the statistics don’t back the argument that they are a significant contributor to those who commit violent acts.

“Something that we do need to be aware of, in terms of adolescence and late adolescence, is they are heavily influenced by negative external pressures and influences,” she added. “This is a time in which young people are easily influenced, in terms of beliefs, and carrying out actions based on those beliefs.”

(EDITORIAL NOTE: While WBFO has chosen not to give the accused gunman extra fame nor gratuitously name him, in stories about his court proceedings, we have opted to identify him. To not do so would be incomplete journalism, and people of color have suggested that anonymity could provide cover to racism that ought to be otherwise exposed and discussed.)

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.