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February 19, 2016

Adult offenders at 18?

Reuel S. Amdur

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There is no scientific basis for making 18, as the case in most countries, the age at which a person is deemed to be an adult offender, no longer a juvenile. That is what Dr. David Farrington recently told Crime Prevention Ottawa. He is a forensic psychologist and professor emeritus at Cambridge University.

In addressing the age of full responsibility, he noted, “The evidence, especially from developmental neuroscience, suggests that, in many respects, young adult offenders aged 18 to 25 are more similar to juveniles than to adults in individual factors such as executive functions, maturity, impulse control, risk-taking, and decision- making focused on immediate rather than future consequences.” 

Executive functions include working memory, reasoning, flexibility, problem-solving, planning, and execution.  The Netherlands has increased the juvenile age up to 23. 

Given the current age of adult responsibility at 18, he calls for special courts and special correctional facilities for those under 25.  He believes that such changes would result in a reduction of recidivism and would actually mean a financial saving.

What is obvious is that young offenders, if not all offenders, with substance abuse problems should be referred to drug courts, and those with mental health issues should be treated.

Farrington outlined factors that contribute to reoffending by juveniles: substance abuse, aggressive, anti-social attitudes, high impulsivity, low empathy, poor school performance, poor peer relations, low family income, poor housing, family involved in crime, family conflict, and poor child-rearing practices. 

In his presentation, Farrington described the results of various measures to reduce delinquency.  “Scared straight”, the method to decrease recidivism that has perhaps gathered the most attention, has been found to be not only ineffective but even harmful. 

There are programs, however, that prove to be successful in reducing recidivism.  An analysis of various programs by Mark Lipsey and associates reported in 2009 found cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to be highly effective.

Close supervision, such as intensive probation or parole, has been seen to have only a minimal impact.  The same is true of boot camps, unless combined with CBT.

Restorative justice programs show themselves to be highly effective.  Senator Vern White, former Ottawa Police Chief, is a strong proponent of these programs and has used them during his policing career.  The key to restorative justice is shaming.  The offender often meets the victim, apologizes, and makes some restitution. 

Various forms of counseling have also been found to have positive impact.  Skill-building programs appear to be useful, from limited benefit from job-related interventions to substantial results from behavior-oriented programs such as CBT.

Programs focusing not only on the young person but on the family as well, have produced positive results.  They address communication patterns.  Then the focus can be extended further, to include peers and school.

Because crime is often a social, not just an isolated activity, programs aimed at promoting resistance to gang involvement are important.  As for gangs themselves, efforts to curtail violence among gangs are important.  While such programs prove effective, there is a tendency to eliminate them once the level of violence decreases.  Then when gang violence starts up again, there is a need to start anew.  We do not eliminate the police force once crime decreases.

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