Should 14-year-olds be sentenced to life in prison?

6:26 AM, Mar 20, 2012   |    comments
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In Friends of the Court briefs, psychologists argue a 14-year-old's brain is not fully developed and that the child is not able to make adult decisions in an adult way.

"Based on the brain and behavioral research that we've been accumulating over the last couple of decades, we feel comfortable about a couple of things regarding teenagers development, the most basic of which is that it is not completed at that time.

"So, we know that the brain continues to develop well into the early 20s. We know that a lot of characteristics that would be relevant for thinking about kids' culpability for crime continue to develop, things like susceptibility to peer pressure, things like being able to sequence events to understand consequences of actions and predict them, to take and understand risks. All of those things continue to develop biologically and psychologically well into the early 20s, so the concern is that teenagers are not fully formed in terms of who they are going to be.

Their character,. their identity continues to develop.
At age 14, we don't know how they are going to turn out, which way they are going to go, " said Georgetown psychology professor Jennifer Woolard.

At issue is an Alabama case where then 14-year-old Evan Miller was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole after being found guilty of killing Candy Cheatham's father, Cole Cannon.

"Justice in this case needs to be retribution," Cheatham told 9News Now.

"This was calculated. He robbed my father. He went over there first- this went on for a series of hours, not in one sweep- he went over there, stole some baseball cards, went back over there at a later time and viciously beat him with his fist and a (baseball) bat with blood going everywhere and then, with three or four places of origin, set it on fire to cover up what he did," Cheatham said.

Cole Cannon wasn't dead when the fire was set.

"He died as a result of six to eight broken ribs, a blunt force trauma to the head, in combination with smoke inhalation," Cheatham said.

"This is something that we have to live with on a daily basis and we'll have to live with for the rest of our lives.

My dad was a father to three; a son and two daughters. He has six grandchildren that he will never meet, that he never got the chance to meet," she said.

The American Psychological Association has filed a Friend of The Court brief arguing against the imposition of life without parole for a 14-year-old.

"This is not about understanding right from wrong and this is not about holding teenagers responsible for heinous crimes. They should be held responsible.

"The question is how and to what degree we hold them responsible. So, the idea that a teenager will be as adult-like as they are going to be and therefore have no chance of change to be fully formed, the behavior and the brain research simply doesn't back that up at this point," said Georgetown professor Jennifer Woolard.

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