Jan 23, 2011

LD mailbag: the turbulent adolescent brain

The Jan/Feb 2011 juvenile justice resolution has prompted another reader question.
Dear Mr. Anderson/Jim Anderson/Decorabilia,

Bri Castellini suggested in a recent post that one argument for Neg was to argue biology - basically that teenagers were torn between hormones and the lack of buildup in the frontal lobe cortex and fighting "a full fledged biological battle." In the last debate, this argument seemed to kill my Aff, because my opponent basically repeated this argument again and again without a strong response (the only response I had was that the line was arbitrary, and we've seen where that goes). When asking others on the team afterwards, the main response seemed to be "Morality is not the province of people over 18, and they should pay." These kinds of retribution arguments have always seemed to me to be kind of weak, and were anyway inconsistent with my value and criterion.

Which is a roundabout way of asking: How would you respond to this argument on its own logic -- not by advocating retribution, but by showing it be unjust, illogical, or not conducive to societal welfare?
It depends on the the argument being made, but here's my stock response.

There's a leap from "adolescence, cognitively and emotionally, is a turbulent time" to "adolescents shouldn't be treated as adults."

The leap is rather large, for several reasons.

1. "Treated as adults" may just mean given the same due process rights, excluding punishment.

2. The resolution is specifically focused on juveniles charged with violent felonies, which excludes the vast majority of everyday adolescents. Potentially, violent offenders are less cognitively turbulent, because they've "grown up too fast." They're outliers, regardless. Unless the research cited is specific to juveniles charged with violent felonies, it's potentially suspect.

3. Speaking of, who's to say that adults charged with violent felonies aren't equally emotionally turbulent? Is it fair to compare a distressed youngster with a normal (i.e., middle-of-the-bell-curve) adult?

4. As I've argued before, culpability is based on relative judgments. It's one thing to say that, on average, juveniles are less culpable than adults. But that fact in and of itself doesn't necessarily justify treating them differently, if they both meet a particular "baseline of culpability."

For instance, compare a 35-year-old and a 60-year-old. Ostensibly, the person with 25 extra years of life experience--collected wisdom, hopefully--is more responsible and, arguably, more culpable. (60-year-olds are measurably happier, too.) But we don't have different systems for the two, since both met the same basic criterion of moral responsibility.

5. Brain-based differences can be effects as much as causes. If we train adolescents to be irresponsible, their brains will, no doubt, reflect their lack of judgment in the very places where judgment is thought to reside. The reverse is also true: training the brain leads to structural changes. (Years of cab-driving, for instance, or a mere 8 weeks of meditation.)

6. On average, and regardless of the reasons, men are more violent than women--which is one of the reasons men and women are housed in different prisons--but men and women have the same due process rights. The point: there's no straight line between differences (even innate, biological, or brain-based differences!) and different treatment.


Anonymous said...

Hey Mr.Anderson

I was a novice and couldn't find some good evidence on these rebuttal argument. So could you please post some evidence.


Sheila said...

Hey Mr. Anderson,
Believe me, I'm an honest to god fan, and have been reading your blog for about 3 years now. So please keep that in mind as I make this next off topic comment: I think it's about time you update and change your profile picture, it's been a while, and let me tell you, 3 years of seeing the same pic, over and over again, is super annoying. keep up the good work, though! :)

Jim Anderson said...

Anonymous, evidence for which one?

Sheila, that comment made me laugh out loud. I'll update the pic.

Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso said...

Hello Mr. Anderson

Do you think you can post anything regarding these topics

1. Rehabilitation
2. Judge vs. Jury
3. Prison Conditions (abuse, rape etc.)

Thank you so much for this blog! it really helps. (:)

Anonymous said...

@ Mr.Anderson

I need evidence for 4


C said...

At a local tournament there was a guy who was running a trap case. Basically he would get the aff to agree that juves deserve high sentences and everything, then turn the entire aff saying that not treating them as adults gives them *higher* sentences. He read a bunch of evidence about plea bargains and parole which cause the average person tried in adult prison to serve only 27% of their sentence.

I didnt debate this guy myself but a teammate did. I was wondering what in the world to say against this in the event we do face off?

Anonymous said...

I was at a recent tournament and overheard some varsity debaters talking about a priori. So what exactly is an a priori and how does it function in a debate case?

Jim Anderson said...

Picasso, possibly. If you have specific questions or arguments to get me started, that might be best. I've got a lot on my plate.

First Anonymous, you might look to developmentalists like Kohlberg or Offer. However, I'd also suggest pushing the burden of proof onto the Neg. Make them establish a way to demonstrate a baseline of culpability: a non-arbitrary standard to determine whether someone understands the meaning and consequences of their actions.

C, the Neg has to reject that argument as nonunique. Plea bargains are offered to juveniles, too. There's no reason to imagine or presume that a separate system would be any harsher on juveniles--when the opposite, historically, is true.

Second Anonymous, an a priori argument, in some views of LD, comes "before" the standards debate. You'll find a decent explanation / critique of the concept here.

C said...

He *was* the negative. He was saying we shouldn't try juvniles as adults so that they wouldnt get those plea bargains and parole. So we should try them in juve courts which will result in longer sentences since juve doesnt have those things.

Jim Anderson said...

C, yeah, got twisted around myself there for a moment. Said "Neg" when I meant "Aff."

I would love to see the evidence that juvenile sentences are somehow longer than adult sentences with a plea bargain.

(Also, juveniles can't receive the death penalty; so much for their punishments being harsher.)

Kyle said...


I know you have a lot on your plate but this is probably really important to blog about; arguing against the argument of we must only argue about the charging process of court.

Jim Anderson said...

Kyle, well, the criminals who are convicted will be "treated as adults" when punished. The Neg can argue on empirical / historical grounds (because that's how it has worked and will work), on theoretical grounds (by arguing that the Aff's restrictive definition is a way to steal Neg ground) and on philosophical grounds (that whatever justifies treating as adults pre-conviction also justifies punishment as adults post-conviction, so the Aff can't just wish away the harm).

Lyssa said...

What about the growing use of guns in juvenile homicide? The kid might be turbulent, but the fact he planned enough to illegally obtain a gun could indicate that these sorts of crimes aren't exactly spontaneous

Anonymous said...

Interesting. However, how do we argue that they (juvenile offenders) meet this particular baseline of culpability?


Jim Anderson said...

One way is to take the same approach that Lyssa advocates above: that by certain actions, juveniles demonstrate culpability regardless of what brain scans may reveal.

Another is to consider the kinds of offenses in question. Do, say, 15-year-olds know that rape, murder, and arson are wrong? We're not talking about misdemeanors or roughhousing, but violent felonies that require "malice aforethought."

Another is to examine cultural traditions involving coming-of-age, such as the Jewish bar and bat mitzvah. Is there any agreement as to when juveniles "grow up," at least in the moral sense?

C said...

How can you argue against a neg saying that juveniles are inadequate in court cross examinations and are intimidated by the trial process? I just said we have attorneys to talk for them, but I dont feel its a strong enough argument because the accused has to get on the stand themselves at some point.

Jim Anderson said...

I see at least two potential responses. One is a qualification: the fifth amendment, which guarantees the right to remain silent. No defendant can be compelled to potentially self-incriminate, and silence can't be used as evidence of guilt.

Second, a defendant's confusion or fear on the stand could cut both ways. It could make a jury sympathetic to an unfortunate youth badgered by a wily and relentless prosecutor.

Searui said...

For the NEG what can be a good way to defend the secondary view on the resolution that says that the resolution includes defending punishments and the impacts of adult jails. Like for example if some of your arguments include how juveniles don't receive an education in jail how can you defend against an aff that claims it's not topical for the round?

(Hope it's clear for you) :P Thanks! :D

Jim Anderson said...

Remember that the entire resolution includes the phrase "in the criminal justice system," which you can define to include punishment. (A tripartite division of the CJS usually includes police, courts, and prisons.)